It’s fair to say that the last few decades have been disastrous for sharks. Conservative figures suggest that the global fishing industry kills around 100 million every single year. The upper estimate is about 250 million. For a species that matures slowly and produces relatively few offspring over the course of a lifetime, this slaughter is unsustainable. Many scientists believe that global populations have collapsed by as much as 90%. Though there are several factors that contribute to the scale of the industry, there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Experts unanimously agree that the majority of animals are killed to satisfy the market for shark fin soup.
When compared to other species, shark meat is almost worthless. However, with the right buyer, the fins can command upwards of $100 per pound and are prized for their gelatinous quality and stringy texture. This price is what compels some of the most barbaric hunting practices on the planet, as sharks are hauled out of the ocean, separated from their fins while they are still alive, and tossed back into the water to suffocate on the seabed. The methods maybe cruel, but the financial incentive has historically proved too tempting to ignore. Until now.
Last week, Canada became the first country in the G20 to ban the import and export of shark fins. Though shark finning in Canadian fisheries has actually been illegal since 1994, the new legislation will make it illegal for anyone to bring fins into the country that are not still attached to the animal.
The move, which has been welcomed by activists, is doubly significant, since Canada has historically been identified as the single largest importer of shark fins outside Asia. Official estimates suggest that in 2018 the country imported over 148,000 kilograms (326,000 lbs) of fins. As Oceana Canada director Josh Laugren told the BBC, "We're not the biggest player but we're a player," adding that, "[The bill] is both meaningful in its own right in terms of the trade of shark fins but also hopefully leads the way for other countries to follow suit."
Despite the potential positive impact of the legislation for shark populations, some have criticised the law. It has been suggested that it unfairly targets Asian culinary culture while ultimately doing little to protect the sharks. However, it’s clear to everyone who studies oceanic ecosystems that something drastic needs to be done. As Laugren explained to the BBC, the situation is akin to the ivory trade, which almost led to the extinction of elephant populations until legislation was brought in at the end of the 20th century. While a global ban on shark finning might mean that some diners have to change their diet, it may ultimately be the only chance we have to save the species.