A Superior Court judge has declared Toronto’s “highly intrusive” ban on shark fins outside the city’s jurisdiction, saying in a decision that the bylaw “lacks a proper municipal purpose” and added no “identifiable benefit” to Toronto’s “environmental well-being.”
Shark advocates and a Scarborough councillor supporting the ban, challenged before it could go into effect Sept. 1, immediately urged an appeal of the decision which came down on Friday, Nov. 30.
The city had argued it has a right to protect its residents from the adverse health effects of consuming sharks, which as top predators can accumulate mercury and other toxins from prey. It also maintained it can pass laws against animal cruelty and that Toronto does not exist “in splendid isolation” from the world’s oceans, where many say shark populations have fallen drastically because of demand for their fins, often removed leaving sharks to die in a practice called “finning.”
In his decision, however, Justice James Spence said “there is no air of reality” to claims the fins are unhealthy for human consumption, calling this and Toronto’s argument the current slaughter of sharks could lead to extinctions in 10 to 20 years “matters of great debate.”
“If it was sufficient for a municipality simply to say ‘this is a bylaw for the well-being of the community,’ a municipality would no longer be effectively accountable for its responsibility to act within the authority delegated to it,” he concluded.
The judge also said the bylaw can be expected to have “a detrimental effect upon the business activities of restaurant operators in the Chinese community” and what some in the community see as an important cultural practice.
One of the four applicants challenging the bylaw managed a Toronto restaurant serving shark fin soup, and another was part of a business that imports shark fins.
“I think the judge feels we didn’t prove our case,” which may be the fault of city’s lawyers or the city itself, Scarborough Centre Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, a supporter of the bylaw, said this week, “in which case we need to fix that and do it properly.”
De Baeremaeker said he’s confident the bylaw will be upheld in an appeal, one he said other municipalities that have passed shark-fin bans have an interest in joining.
Toronto has the right to ban products, and experts say eating shark fin soup in Toronto results in a slaughter of sharks in the seas, he argued.
“It is a Toronto issue and it is a global issue.”
The councillor disagreed with Spence’s finding that the bylaw was “highly intrusive,” saying it is intended to be enforced in businesses, based on complaints, and not in people’s homes. “We are not Big Brother,” he said.
On Monday, though, David Cohen, a spokesperson for the Fair and Responsible Government Alliance, a group backing the four applicants, said the bylaw in theory could be broken not just by a restaurant but anyone possessing shark fins, including someone driving them through the city.
A former Richmond Hill councillor, Cohen said he became a director for FARGA, which says it is against importing shark products harvested through finning, after attending the group’s fundraiser and deciding its bylaw challenge was reasonable.
“We won in that a judge has ruled that what we said was correct,” he said. “In the city there aren’t any oceans where sharks grow.”
Toronto Centre-Rosedale Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said she found Spence’s ruling confusing, since it seemed to be narrowing municipal powers, recognized by previous judgements, to pass bylaws.
Like shark fins, tobacco is a legal, federally regulated product, yet cities passed bylaws restricting smoking, and in the near future Toronto councillors will debate banning smoking on public patios, argued Wong-Tam, who said FARGA exists not to fight for rights but to support “profit-making.”
Canada has banned finning but it doesn’t track or label imported shark fins, so it would be difficult to say where the fins are coming from, she said.
A group called Fin Free charged in a release the fin trade is “largely unregulated” and studies have “indicated up to half of those sharks (served in Toronto) are caught illegally,” suggesting finning is used.
“I believe that municipalities have both the jurisdiction and the responsibility towards its residents to enact and enforce such bylaws given the implications of shark finning and the consumption of shark fin,” added Rob Stewart, director of the documentary Sharkwater and co-leader of the group, which called Spence’s decision shortsighted.