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Majority of shark fins, manta ray gills on market from at-risk species: study

In Chinese culture, shark fin is widely considered a luxury ingredient and a single bowl of shark-fin soup often costs more than $100 a bowl.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The majority of shark fin and manta ray gills – an ingredient growing in popularity in Chinese traditional medicine – sold around the world come from endangered species and are thus illegal, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Guelph performed DNA testing on shark fin and manta ray gills purchased in Canada, China and Sri Lanka. The study found that 71 per cent of the 129 samples came from species listed as at-risk in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Outside of a handful of cities that have enacted bans, the sale of shark fin is legal in Canada. However, as with most countries around the world, it is illegal to trade products from species protected under CITES. The practice of "finning" – removing the fin and disposing the rest of the carcass back in the water – has also been illegal in Canada since 1994.

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Still, conservationists have long warned that these rules are being ignored. Of the samples in the Guelph study, 71 of the shark fins were purchased in Vancouver. Among them was whale shark fin, a species listed on CITES since 2003.

"It confirms what we've long suspected," said Dirk Steinke, adjunct professor of integrative biology at the University of Guelph. "Our study certainly contributes in giving good evidence that [illegal activity] occurs and adds to other studies that have found similar results."

He said the small sample size was only due to the high cost of purchasing samples for study – often hundreds of dollars a pound.

In Chinese culture, shark fin is widely considered a luxury ingredient and a single bowl of shark-fin soup often costs more than $100 a bowl. Outside of East Asia, Canada is the largest importer of shark fins worldwide, importing 318,000 pounds in 2015. More recently, manta ray gill has become popular in Chinese traditional medicine, believed to heal a variety of different ailments.

Until recently, officials faced major challenges enforcing against illegal shark fins. Because the fins are normally imported dried and separate from the rest of carcass, customs officials often lacked the expertise to distinguish whether or not a fin came from an endangered species.

The latest Guelph study, however, was conducted using DNA bar-coding – an innovation created at the University of Guelph. The process involves extracting DNA, using special equipment to "read" its sequence, and comparing that sequence with an existing database. The technology presents to the food industry and regulatory officials the ability to positively identify a species for a relatively low cost – as low as about $10 a sample.

The Guelph study also bolsters the argument for lawmakers who, in recent years, have made many attempts to ban shark fin sales. Those attempts have failed, due in part to accusations of cultural insensitivity, but also because of a lack of reliable data or enforcement abilities.

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In April, Conservative Senator Michael MacDonald tabled a bill to again attempt to ban the import of shark fin. That bill is now at second reading.

He called the Guelph study the "perfect example" of why such a ban needs to be put in place.

"We're not saying it's illegal to have a bowl of shark fin soup, and we're not saying you can't use a shark fin caught in a sustainable fishery along with the rest of the shark," he said. "But the importation of shark fin alone is just emblematic of a huge problem that we're doing nothing about."

More important to Dr. Steinke is to address demand. As the controversy over shark fin has continued over recent years, many of the most vocal critics against the consumption of it have come from within Chinese communities. "Legislation is one thing," Dr. Steinke said. "But I believe these kinds of things can only be driven by the market itself and by the demand."

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