Archive for April, 2011

Silence on Climate Change

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Well, this is probably not surprising, but it is discouraging. In the current campaign leading up to Canada’s May 2 Federal Election, no one is talking about climate change, or reducing Canada’s Carbon emissions.

Considering that Canada has close to the world’s highest per capita consumption and emission rates, you would think this is at least worth some discussion.

All three Canadian national political parties with any hope of electing anyone have published platforms that do in fact address the question.

The Conservative Party of course does not support any sort of carbon tax or cap-and-trade policy. Its clearest written statement is that it supports a reduction of 20% in absolute levels of emissions by 2020. Explicitly though, it intends to do only as much as US decides to do, and since no federal action to reduce emissions will occur in the US in the next six years, the Conservative Party currently just ignores the issue.

The Liberal Party also has little interest in any carbon tax system, but its platform statement does promote cap-and-trade, and it also proposes to reduce carbon emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 1990. The same is true of the the New Democrat Party and its published platform.

These are quite strong statements to include in party platforms, yet we hear nothing from the party leaders or the local candidates. Politicians who should know better are afraid to say anything.

And it isn’t as if the Liberal or new Democrat Parties are about to win this election. They aren’t. What an opportunity this is then for the party leaders to speak up with courage and vision. What a missed opportunity.

Prime Minister Harper in 2020, on a poster prepared by Green Peace (there is also similar one of President Barack Obama)

The prospects of diminishing per capita emissions seem as poor in Canada as they do in the US. It is ‘Business As Usual’ – the one scenario among our various options described in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment certain to be a disaster.

Hope for action remains at the provincial and state level where efforts at cap-and-trade agreements continue between BC, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Arizona, and New Mexico. Called the Western Climate Alliance, California, British Columbia and Quebec expect a start date of 2012, with other states and provinces joining after it gets underway. Even with the conservative swing in states and provinces, some of this is likely to occur.

The Western Climate Alliance - members in green, observers in blue: a growing initiative, by-passing federal political parties (

But what do we hear from our national leaders? Nada. Rien. Silence. For the love of Canada, for the love of the planet, speak up.

The End of Shark Finning?

Friday, April 1st, 2011

We have done a lot of horrible and embarrassing things to other species on this planet, but I am not sure if any example is worse than driving sharks toward extinction in large part because of the popularity of shark fin soup.

The story is well known. Sharks – somewhat maligned as vicious predators – are caught by the millions, their dorsal fins and tails are cut off for future soups, and they are then thrown back into the sea to die slow deaths.

Shark fins harvested by one boat, on one trip.

Overall numbers are discouraging. A ninety percent drop in shark populations has occurred in the past couple of decades and most of the 30 species are endangered, a third of them facing extinction. Attempting to get a reliable number of how many sharks are killed annually for their fins is difficult, for it is not in any way a managed fishery. Estimates are in the order of 70 million or more fish per year. Seventy million.

About 95% of the shark fins head to China (including Taiwan and Hong Kong), and much of the rest goes to cities where there is a large Chinese population, like San Francisco and Vancouver. Shark fin soup has been an important part of celebratory banquets in China for about 2000 years, and it has become a very expensive dish associated with the rich elite.

But things are changing, and if it isn’t too late, sharks may get a reprieve. Last year Hawaii banned the sale and distribution of shark fins. California is now considering the same thing. Currently, as well, US federal law prohibits shark finning by US registered vessels, and shark fins cannot be imported into the US unless the entire shark is used rather than discarded.

The scalloped hammerhead shark was recently listed as 'endangered', at risk of extinction, in part because of the harvest of its fins for shark fin soup (

None of this, though, applies to ‘foreign’ registered vessels, and of course has no impact on the Chinese market where almost all the action lies.

Now, in China, Chinese lawmakers, led by Ding Liguo and 12 other deputies to the National People’s Congress, are proposing a ban on the trade of shark fins in China. The potential impact is huge.

Of course there is resistance particularly from parts of the Chinese populations in non-Chinese cities like San Francisco, accusing the legislators and environmentalists of racism and cultural insensitivity. There is a point, however, where environmental concern, in this case the actual survival of sharks, trumps tradition. Traditions can be changed – it happens all the time. Not so for extinction.

On top of this – or perhaps driving part of it – is a growing sense particularly of younger Chinese that shark fin soup isn’t necessary as a component of banquets: other expensive food, such as lobster, can make the same impression. A remarkable website, called Shark Truth, and run by Canadian activists of Chinese descent, is having a significant impact in helping to change the tradition.

Shark Truth is running a contest for those who agree not to include shark fin soup in their wedding banquets

The combination of Internet communication, growing disapproval of serving or eating shark fin soup, and laws that actually ban the sale of shark fins in China should actually work. Sharks get killed in other ways of course – they are abundant victims of long-line by-catch – but there should be celebrations throughout the oceans if finning ceases.

This is more than a small success. It recognizes the wastefulness and unethical practice of finning, and it recognizes the importance of sharks as top predators in sustaining the critical trophic structure of marine communities.

Shark fin soup today. Tunafish sushi tomorrow?