With shark fins in the tank, a University of Alberta law professor says bite-sized solutions may be a helpful tool in the fight against biodiversity loss and climate change.
Last month, the federal government amended the Fisheries Act to ban the trading of shark fins. For Cameron Jefferies, the decision is a vindication of a long campaign that failed to gain legal traction, while raising public awareness about an environmentally destructive practice.
“There was a lot of successful work at spreading the word and it came from a lot of different sources,” said Jefferies, who in addition to teaching environmental law, is deeply concerned about species conservation and the threat of climate change.
In 2011, he started a local volunteer campaign to ban the sale of shark fins in Edmonton restaurants, while simultaneously writing a handful of research articles on the subject. Interest among Canadian municipalities fizzled in 2012 when the Ontario Superior Court ruled that shark fin regulations were outside of the City of Toronto’s jurisdiction.
Over the years, five private member’s bills were tabled by politicians across the political spectrum. It looked like the latest bill would end up in limbo until mid-June, when the federal government added the ban into an existing amendment of the Fisheries Act.
Landlocked ocean view
With an office only a few steps from the North Saskatchewan River valley, Jefferies is uniquely positioned to look at ocean conservation.
After completing science and law degrees at the U of A, Jefferies studied at the University of Virginia oceans law program, finishing a doctoral dissertation on international whale conservation. It was there that he found a tangible target for advocacy in a bowl of soup, helping bring a shark fin ban before the Virginia House of Delegates in 2011.
Prized for their chewy, noodle-like texture, shark fins have long been considered a delicacy for Chinese banquets and wedding parties. Yet critics have tied the dish to shark finning, an inhumane fishing practice that involves cutting off dorsal fins and leaving the shark to die. Oceana Canada estimates that 73 million sharks were killed that way last year alone.
Decades of overfishing have depleted shark populations by 90 per cent or more. And while finning has been banned in Canadian waters since 1994, the country had remained the world’s third-largest importer of shark fins outside of Asia. According to Statistics Canada, that meant importing 148,000 kilograms of shark fins last year alone.
When Jefferies brought his campaign back home to Alberta in 2011, the federal government had little appetite for the issue.
Yet the shark fin ban shows that conservation victories often take place in the court of public opinion, Jefferies said. The arguments remain the same eight years later: a ban costs taxpayers next to nothing, encourages alternative ingredients and follows a trend away from the dish that is already occurring among younger Chinese people.
“It just takes a long time, often, for these things to work their way through,” he said. “It’s frustrating because it does take time. For a lot of these environmental issues, we don’t necessarily have that time.”
Law school on the coast
For the past two springs, Jefferies has taken students to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island to conduct the first law school class at the research centre shared by the U of A and four other universities.
In his Oceans Law and Policy seminar, students spend an intensive week in class, then head to the coast for an introduction to the scientific aspects of ocean management. Students learn about the challenges in regulating and enforcing law in a dynamic environment and take to the field, visiting protecting sites and observing marine life.
Ocean health is crucial to the entire planet’s environment. Marine plants produce an estimated 70 per cent of the planet’s oxygen supply, and ocean ecosystems are coming under increased scrutiny. A United Nations-backed report released two months ago that stated a million species of plants and animals worldwide are threatened with extinction is only adding to the urgency of laws to govern high seas resources and ocean biodiversity, Jefferies said.
“I see law and regulatory reform as something that’s lived,” he said. “It’s incumbent on concerned individuals to figure out different routes for advocacy and community engagement.”
In an era that is increasingly defined by a changing climate, Jefferies is still looking for the next bowl of soup: a digestible target for meaningful action.
His main project right now is much closer to home. As part of a study sponsored by the Alberta Real Estate Foundation, he is undertaking a critical review of the provincial government’s 2017 overhaul of the Municipal Government Act, which carved out a bigger environmental stewardship role for local governments.
As part of the project, he’ll also help create a brochure showing property owners how their backyards can contribute to Alberta’s broader biodiversity conservation efforts, while helping them preserve local ecosystems, encouraging pollination, bird habitats and soil health.
While carbon taxes and large-scale regulations take up much of the breathing room, Jefferies believes smaller policy changes like the shark fin ban can have massive impacts. The upside is that these changes may be better able to withstand election cycles.
Lawyers are advocates, Jefferies said. If you do the public work up front, making a clear case for a proposed action, people will be empowered to take on the challenge and support reform.
“We’ve seen again and again that portraying a dystopian, Mad Max world is probably not what gets people,” he said. “If someone can hone in on a winnable action, then we could start to turn the curve.”