The issue of banning the sale of shark fins came to London city hall on Tuesday.
It had been all over the news a few weeks earlier when the matter had been dealt with by Toronto city council. There the ban won a solid round of support from councillors by a vote of 38-4. Among those opposing the ban were Mayor Rob Ford. The practice of using shark fins to make a broth for a soup that can fetch up to $100 per bowl had been going on a long time. He couldn’t see what the fuss was about, and besides, wasn’t it a national issue rather than a local one?
His thoughts were not much different from those of the Community and Neighbourhoods Committee members on Tuesday evening. Not one of the members claimed to have ever heard any concern about this issue despite the fact that three Ontario municipalities in addition to Toronto—Brantford, Mississauga and Oakville—have already passed the ban.
Even Sandy White, who brought the issue to the attention of the committee at the request of a constituent, claimed ignorance of the controversy. She asked proponent Jeremy Larivee to address the issue as he was more informed and knowledgeable. “It’s all new to me,” she explained.
And indeed, Larivee was articulate and well-informed. He made a succinct presentation to the committee pointing out that some shark species are endangered and may be extinct in 15-20 years. Basically, shark finning involves cutting off the fin which comprises about 1 to 6% of the shark; the remainder is thrown overboard and where the animal slowly dies. Shark meat does not hold the market value of the fins which are used to make a culinary delicacy used in some Chinese wedding ceremonies. Despite this, many persons of Chinese extraction support the ban.
The market for shark fins in London is very small. Larivee’s research located only one restaurant actually selling the soup and one other which indicated a willingness to do so. His discussion with the owners suggested that there was probably one other which also did so.
Councillor Bill Armstrong was sympathetic; he indicated a willingness to support the ban but suggested that this might be a federal matter and should, therefore, be passed along to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) to take up with the feds. It would be something that required the cooperation of cities nationwide.
No one seemed clear on which federal ministry would be responsible for this. Would it be the ministry of the environment? Fisheries? Food and Agriculture?
Harold Usher had never heard about this. He thought it might be a matter for the Health Unit. He worried about the cultural aspects of this; he certainly wasn’t prepared to support any kind of ban.
Usher is the chair of this committee. Surely he had checked out the agenda before the meeting. Even a simple Google search will provide basic information on the matter as well as indicating how other municipalities have dealt with it. And doesn’t the chair normally meet with staff to go over the agenda in the morning of the meeting? Apparently not.
Councillor Steven Orser took over the questioning. This was not a health board matter, he pointed out. This would be an import matter. But his concern was with the fines. The Mississauga by-law provided for $15,000 on a first offence. Wasn’t that a little steep? Could the presenter really support that?
“When it’s between the extinction of the species and the fine, yes,” came the response from Larivee.
“So you also want all shark meat in Metro and other grocery stores, No Frills, banned also because that is the other part of the shark?” Orser’s tone was that of an interrogator.
Larivee replied that while he was a vegan and personally opposed to factory farming, this was not about shark meat, this was about cutting off the fins and throwing the shark back in the water, the practice which is endangering the species. There is not much demand for shark meat.
“So you want a meatless society,” Orser sneered.
Orser pointed out that there was a new grocery store in his ward with all sorts of “cultural products.” There might be shark fins and shark meat. He continued to bully the young presenter.
“You want me to tell my voters that they can’t have shark meat and shark fins?” Orser asked. Larivee reiterated that his request was for fins only, not the meat. It was the demand for fins that was decimating the population.
“So the meat is fine, but not the fins,” Orser continued. “So if we all start eating the meat like mad, that would be okay.”
He informed the presenter that a by-law would be “just a nightmare to enforce.” Besides, "it happens off shore." And although Councillor White was “a great councillor and a lovely person,” she really shouldn’t have brought this here. It was a federal matter.
“I don't want to send by-law officers out to check the soup,” he said disparagingly. “And I eat shark meat.”
Usher was ready to pass this one off to the feds until he was interrupted by Matt Brown who wanted to know from staff to which federal department this should be referred.
Usher was taken aback. He had assumed nobody on staff knew. He’d never heard about any of this anywhere. He had asked people. Nobody knew. The country that he came from (Belize) had plenty of sharks and had never had this problem. He agreed that the committee had to find out who has information. He still thought it might be the department of health.
White had another question “Would it be harmful for us to refer this to administration to get some direction?” she asked, reasonably. “To just ignore this is inappropriate to my point of view…”
The mayor weighed in. He had served in the federal government. There was a whole host of international law involved. He didn’t see how city should get involved in this. It’s an issue that is offensive some people, some nations. He wanted to refer it to our federal representatives, get information from the federal authorities.
Armstrong felt the whole thing had gone off the rails a bit. Yes, he had suggested that the federal government should be involved, but that didn’t mean the council couldn’t take a stand. He thought there should at least be a call for a moratorium on imports.
“Other municipalities have a by-law,” he pointed out. Why can’t we go a step further and take a position?”
"Because we don't know, Bill," Usher replied.
There were several more minutes of crafting a motion. Whom to send the request to? Who would send it?
White tried a last time. “Could we ask,” she began. “I didn't expect a by-law tonight. But why aren't we dealing with it at the committee level?” She wanted to send a strong message to the community.
Indeed. And why had no one thought of referring the issue to the Advisory Committee on the Environment or the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee? And why hadn’t they actually done a little research on the issue?
But instead, they settled for having staff contact the “appropriate ministry” to get information on the subject and allowing an enthusiastic young constituent to come under attack from one of its own members.
So much for public engagement.