by the Ecology Action Centre‘s Marine Team.
As the hot summer months are upon us, the annual event that is “Shark Week” is once again in full force. Some of us Canadians have been waiting a whole year for Shark Week, while others are interested because they simply need to fill the void created by the end of the sixth season of Game of Thrones. However, as we celebrate the legendary power and evolutionary success of sharks for a week, and consider the threat that human activity has posed and continues to pose to shark populations globally, it is important to recognize that, in many ways, Canada has fallen far behind many other countries in our work to protect our precious shark species.
One important example of Canada’s lack of leadership on protections for sharks, is our continued rejection of a ‘fins-attached’ policy in our waters. For those who do not know, the ‘fins-attached’ policy is a policy that requires fishers who catch sharks at sea to keep the fins attached until they bring the shark back to land. Although not new, the policy has gained significant momentum within countries and international organizations in recent years.
Shark fin is in high demand in Asian countries where it is primarily used to make shark fin soup, a commodity associated with health and wealth among the elite class in some Asian cultures. The lucrative market provides a massive incentive for shark fishing, with estimates stating that roughly 100 million sharks are being killed every year. The high value of shark fins also encourages shark “finning”, an extremely destructive and wasteful practice where the fins are cut off the shark and the carcass is discarded because of its comparatively low value. Furthermore, not only are shark populations under pressure due to fishing but also because of climate change, pollution and other human-related factors. Therefore, the fins-attached practice provides a straight forward way to help protect sharks as the best practice for preventing shark finning.
Canada banned the specific practice of shark finning in 1994, an early adopter of such a rule – this means it is illegal for any sharks to have their fins removed at sea and the remaining carcass thrown overboard. Canada enforces this rule through a fin-to-body-weight ratio rather than the fins attached policy, a method that carries significant flaws. The ratio means that fins and bodies must be landed at the same time but do not need to be attached, so long as the weight of fins does not exceed 5% of the total body weight. Some of the criticisms of the ratio method include:
- Not all species have the same natural fin-to-body weight ratio. Because some species may have smaller fins, it is possible to sneak in extra fins within the 5%, allowing finning to still occur
- Ratio rule allows for potential high-grading. Fins from some species are more valuable than others, and the same goes for carcasses. Under the current rule it is possible to mix-and-match fins and carcasses to maximize value, effectively doubling the number of sharks that are being killed and misrepresenting the number removed by fisheries in our data.
- The ratio that is landed is highly dependent on where and how fin cuts are made, which fins are kept, and confusion over whether body weight refers to whole weight, or “dressed” weight (after organs or possibly the head has been removed) causes further room for confusion and illegal finning.
- Ratio data and calculations are not made publicly available in Canada, giving no proof that this rule is being recorded or enforced.
A ‘fins-attached’ policy will simplify the enforcement of Canada’s existing finning ban by eliminating the need for calculations of body weight or other complicated methods of determining whether or not illegal activity has occurred. This policy would also allow for improved data collection about shark species – many species of shark are mainly identifiable by their fins, and if the fins and bodies are separated at the time of landing, they can be misidentified which skews the data that is collected. Being able to identify more sharks correctly will allow for scientists to have a better understanding of shark population numbers and migratory routes. Requiring fins to remain attached also creates incentives for fishers who catch sharks as bycatch to release the shark back into the wild instead of landing them, as they take up far more space in the hold.
Sharks represent important species in our ocean and their removal could generate negative impacts throughout entire ecosystems. It is time for Canada to join other countries in shark conservation and help protect shark populations through the ‘fins-attached’ policy. Contact Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Dominic LeBlanc, tell a friend, or write your own post to spread the word about why Canada needs to support this policy! Let’s make every week Shark Week and convince Canada to step up to the plate.
Contact the Minister
The Ecology Action Centre’s Marine Team has been working on sharks since 2008. This work has focused on changing Canadian policy to reduce bycatch of sharks and attending international meetings to advocate for stronger protections of sharks on a larger scale.