To slow what has become a global decline, an increasing number of North American lawmakers are exploring a range of legislated bans on shark products. Fin Donnelly, a B.C. Member of Parliament and the NDP Critic for Fisheries and Oceans, introduced a private Member’s bill in December 2011 that would impose a Canada-wide importation ban on shark fins. The bill may reach second reading as early as this December. At the time of writing, at least five municipal shark fin laws exist in Ontario alone, with three, including one in Toronto, planned to begin before the end of the year. South of the border, Hawaii banned shark fins in 2010, followed by California, Washington State and Oregon in 2011.
Internationally, one hope for conservation is to list the most threatened sharks on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty signed by 175 countries with the goal of ensuring that global trade in wildlife does not threaten species survival. But Cooper notes that CITES has stalled as a means of protecting marine animals generally, as powerful commercial fishing interests continue to block efforts to control trade in lucrative fish such as bluefin tuna and hammerhead sharks.
In Vancouver, a more grassroots approach to conservation is already having an impact on shark fin consumption. Shark Truth is a small not-for-profit organization that raises awareness among the Asian consumers and restaurateurs who drive the demand for shark fins in the first place. Led by first-generation Chinese-Canadian Claudia Li, Shark Truth’s flagship program is the Happy Hearts Love Sharks Wedding Contest. It’s a Facebook photo contest for couples who have chosen not to serve shark fin soup at their wedding banquet, a traditional venue for the dish. To date, Li estimates that about 80 couples have taken the pledge to go fin-free, preventing at least 20,000 bowls of the soup from being served.
Shark Truth’s second focus is restaurants such as Vancouver’s The Original Szechuan Chongqing Seafood Restaurant, the first Chinese restaurant in Greater Vancouver to stop serving shark fin soup. Managing director Lisa Wong, who learned of Shark Truth in 2010, says the wasteful aspect of finning — all for a soup that she says is dependent entirely on ham and chicken broth for flavour — astounded her. (Shark fin does not add flavour or texture to the soup, nor does it impart any health benefit: “It’s a conspicuous consumption product,” says Li.) Although the restaurant was not selling a lot of shark fin soup anyway, it was taken off the menu as a symbolic gesture. “I would like to get people to start thinking about shark fin,” says Wong, adding that even if shark fins could be sourced from a sustainable fishery she wouldn’t reintroduce the dish. “I’m not against people eating it, but I won’t be serving it.”
The MSC certification in British Columbia raises the possibility of a new local market niche for spiny dogfish fins from a traceable fishery with relatively strong management measures firmly in place. “There’s an opportunity right here in Vancouver for a sustainable shark fin product to replace other fins,” says Michael Renwick, a marine biologist who is executive director of the B.C. Dogfish Hook and Line Industry Association. “So far there isn’t really enough dogfish being caught to warrant that, but maybe in the future.”
If that day ever does come, however, Renwick likely won’t find an ally in organizations such as Shark Truth. That’s because Li believes education, not certified sustainable shark fin, is the answer to saving sharks. “It’s basically impossible to certify the majority of shark fin with MSC,” she says, because so many illegal fisheries currently supply the market. “It’s not going to save sharks from being finned.”
It’s day three of our fishing trip. I’m standing on deck watching as a quick succession of plump-bellied, mature female dogfish are hauled in. Ryan Planes unhooks them and flings their bodies through the air into a deep compartment filled with ice. I ask about the females. Planes says all the dogfish we have caught on this trip so far have been females. Is that a problem? “Yes, probably,” he answers. “Eventually, yes.” For the time being, though, he isn’t worried. “The biomass is so large, and there really isn’t anybody left fishing them now.”
Fellow Ucluelet-based longline fisherman Dan Edwards echoes Planes when asked about the effect of catching a disproportionate number of large females. “With the low amount of overall catch, it’s not considered a major problem if more females are harvested,” he says, adding that there will be a new, full stock assessment of B.C. spiny dogfish within five years as a condition of MSC certification. By the time that work is done, the MSC will also re-evaluate the fishery, and if serious concerns emerge, the certification can be suspended.
Currently, British Columbia hook-and-line fishermen are allowed to catch about 9,500 tonnes of dogfish a year, but John Planes laughs at the mention of this figure. “We won’t catch anywhere close to that,” he says. Last season, hook-andliners caught just over 900 tonnes, way down from the 35,00- tonne annual catch they’ve been averaging over the past 10 years. The reason for the decrease is mostly economic: the price premium that dogfish fishermen anticipated from green certification has not materialized, in large part due to the reopened U.S. east coast dogfish fishery that sells to the same European market at lower prices, and it shows in the amount of cash the 225 dogfish, 115 halibut and dozens of big sablefish and rockfish in the Ocean Sunset’s hold are expected to yield. John Planes will get roughly 66 cents per kilogram for the big dogfish and half that price for the small ones, compared with about $15.40 and $17.60 per kilogram for halibut and sablefish, respectively.
We chug into Ucluelet Inlet and past a cluster of houses at Stuart Bay, where at least eight sun-bleached fishing boats have been abandoned to decay just above the high-tide mark. On the opposite bank are three closed fish-processing plants, two for salmon and another for hake. John Planes displays the paradoxical optimism of a man who has spent an entire career on the water witnessing the slow decline of an industry yet clings to a life he loves. Garbage fish or not, he believes it’s inevitable that the low price he currently gets for his dogfish will rise. “Given the depletion of everything else,” he says, “I can’t see the dogfish price going anywhere but up in the future.”
B.C.’s spiny dogfish
Canada’s Pacific coastal waters are relatively shark-infested, with at least 14 species either resident or visiting at some point during the year. Seasonal visitors include blue sharks, shortfin makos and even great whites, but the spiny dogfish (Squalus suckleyi) is by far the most abundant and the only target of a commercial fishery.
In local waters, dogfish comprise two distinct stocks: one on the inside Strait of Georgia, which are generally homebodies, and a more migratory stock off the west coast of Vancouver Island, which can range from Baja California to Alaska and as far afield as Japan.
Historically, spiny dogfish are one of the most widely harvested and used fish in B.C. waters. Industrial fisheries have existed since at least 1870, and like humpback whales, local dogfish originally supplied oil for lighting; in the 1940s, their large livers were used as a source of vitamin A. Spiny dogfish have long been considered a nuisance for getting caught in salmon nets, and a federally-sponsored dogfish eradication campaign existed in British Columbia from 1958 to 1967, the same time a similar program wiped out the province’s once-abundant basking sharks.