Legal Rights of Sharks along Canada’s West Coast

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Anthony Pica; Sean Roufosse; Audrey Steele; Kennedy Thomson. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.


For millions of years sharks have been roaming the oceans, adapting to many different marine ecosystems [1]. At one time, there were three-thousand species of sharks, today, Earth’s oceans are home to more than 350 species [2]. There are one-hundred million sharks killed every year worldwide, tens of millions of those sharks are killed for their fins [3]. These animals are apex predators that have a large influence on the regulation of the species below them in the food chain. The depletion of this species would have detrimental lasting effects on marine ecosystems. Hence, addressing the actors in shark wellbeing and how to manage them is pressing and highly significant.

Canada has the longest coastlines in the world at about 243,042 km long, touching the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans[1]. Only about 5.22% (12,686.8 km) of that coastline is protected according to an article presented by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (FDO) in 2017[2]. The FDO mentioning that they hope to have 10% of Canadian coastlines protected by 2020 [2]. Many actors are affected by legislation directed to preserve sharks on the West Coast, including shark fishermen, ecotourism companies, and consumers of shark products. The difficult task of managing these stakeholders is extremely complicated and requires action by international treaties and local legislation, enforced and encouraged by the Canadian Government. With knowledge regarding the actors, one can analyze how these actors are affecting shark conservation efforts, as evidence for the problem.

The Canadian government has uses the word “sharks” to encompass following three species; sharks, skates and chimaera, in the NOPA. To date, twenty-nine different shark species, twenty-nine skate species, and four chimaera species are living, hunting and reproducing off the coastlines of Canada [2]. Sharks that are included in the 29 species are the Basking Shark (Cetorhuns maximus), the Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) and the common Thresher (Alopias vulpinus).

Actors and Their Impact

Shark Fishermen

Currently, the United States ranks 8th in the world for the number of sharks fished, with Canada at 21st. Due to the disproportionate contribution of the top 4 countries of 35%, the actual contribution of Canada and is relatively low at just 1.39% [4]. Since, these figures are indicative of the whole country, the actual contribution of the North East Pacific region is in fact very small, however, a factor nonetheless. Since 2010 a large decrease in reported sharks fished occurred in the region, arguably due to a changing world perception of the species. In the case of Salmon Sharks off the coast of Alaska and northern BC however, this decrease can be attributed to the concerning overfishing and subsequent decrease of Salmon Shark population density [5]. Ultimately due to the lack of shark quantities in the region, the actual effect on shark fishermen from any legislation is rather low, since there is not much of an industry. Though shark fishermen are technically negative actors in the conservation of sharks, their overall impact is minimal and there are very few fishermen with shark catching as the prime objective. However, any legislation would have the sole purpose of preventing the creation of an industry of commercial fishers, or the exploitation of the limited populations by sport fishermen. That said bycatch, the inadvertent catching of an organism, poses a notable threat which is significant to be considered. [5]

Shark fin protest at Maxim's restaurant at the University of Hong Kong 10 February 2018. By Socheid via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0


Traditionally one of the largest and most prevalent threats to sharks is shark finning for the cultural disk of shark fin soup. The act of shark finning entails removing shark fins and dumping the carcasses back into the ocean. Though many view this practice as a barbaric and outdated, some who have followed traditional delicacies of certain Asian cultures for generations believe that consumption of these soups increases longevity and overall health [6]. Some argue that by eliminating the fishing and subsequent trade of shark fins, governments are effectively shunning long practiced cultural traditions. This said many of those in younger generations view shark fin soup consumption as a practice far more important to their parents and grandparents which shows a shift in current cultural norms. [6]

Lately, the push away from shark fin soup by NGOs and high-profile celebrities has caused a shift from these traditional dishes in China. Thought this is helpful, a consistent and expanding consumption in Hong Kong, Macau and Thailand is concerning. Because of this shift though, shark fin soup is no longer the largest threat to shark populations [7]. Recently a push from the cosmetics industry for shark liver oil, as well as a 40% global increase in shark meat consumption has made the issue shift towards an issue of conserving the whole organism and not just preventing harvesting of the fin [7].

Ecotourism Groups as Stakeholders

Ecotourism is a very large opportunity for communities situated around shark populations, and has the potential to exceed commercial uses of sharks, with some tourism companies seeing increases in tourism up to eightfold [5]. The low visibility and frigid temperatures of the water off the coast of Canada’s Pacific makes viewing sharks quite difficult. This paired with the seasonal and inconsistent appearance of dominant shark species makes the area unfavorable for mainstream tourists and thus greatly reduces the development of a lucrative shark tourism industry in the region [5]. This said, ecotourism of sharks is on the rise worldwide and does present opportunities for British Columbia and Canada to promote the growth of shark populations which, if high enough, could translate into ecotourism development opportunities.

International Treaties

Canada partakes in multiple international initiatives to reduce shark finning in Canadian waters. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Association created a framework on the conservation of sharks called the International Plan of Action for Sharks (IPOA-Sharks) which governments could replicate locally to enact change in shark finning practices. In 2007 Canada created a National Plan of Action for Sharks (NPOA – Sharks) based off this plan which aims to [8]:

Salmon Shark Bycatch off the Pacific Northwest. By SST Kathy Hough via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
  • Enhance data collection and scientific research;
  • Adopt ecosystem and precautionary approaches in fisheries management renewal;
  • Standardize reporting and management plan processes;
  • Reduce bycatch and increase reporting of discard mortality;
  • Extend conservation and management measures to the Arctic; and
  • Enhance outreach and education efforts both in Canada and internationally.

This plan does not have any framework for the promotion of complete use of shark carcasses which represents as a failure to address shark finning on a localised level, or acknowledge a need for sustainable shark fishing.

With these Act’s there are policies and programs that were developed to further implement these acts that protect Sharks and their ecosystems.

Due to Canada’s signing of Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) the country is obligated to protect any sharks found threated enough to be included in the agreement. In 2002, three Canadian Shark species were included and in 2014 these species were expanded to 8 [9]. Depending on the species classification, CITES either eliminates trade (Appendix I), or limits trade to those with a permit (Appendix II, III) [10]. As supply decreases however, the price of these fins increases which creates more of an incentive to enter the black market. Canada still allows the export of shark fins and consumption domestically and as of 2015 is the 27th largest exporter of shark fins internationally [9].

Shark finning leads to Regarding shark finning explicitly, one of the largest factors contributing to shark fishing, two main agreements aim to eliminate the practice in Canadian waters. When The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), banned the practice of shark finning in 2004 Canada was forced to follow suit since they belong to the commission. The North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) also bans finning (despite “Atlantic” designation, under NPOA-Sharks this applies to all Canadian waters including Pacific), which adds a second legislative avenue for upholding the ban [9]

Domestic Action

The Ministry of Fisheries acts as a governing body responsible for all fishery action, including the management of Canadian shark species and has multiple policies regulating where and what fishermen can fish. Currently, Canada does have policies in place to limit the exploitation of sharks, and fisheries, with multiple acts to help protect shark species, some of these multiple legislative acts including[11]:

  • The Coastal Fisheries Protection Act
  • Department of Fisheries and Oceans Act
  • Fisheries Act
  • Oceans Act
  • The Species at Risk Act

Where Fishing Can Occur

Two main acts regulate where fishermen can practice their field. The coastal fisheries act refers to the Minister's responsibility of regulating the Canadian waters and to determine whether or not foreign fishing vessels can have access to Canadian waters, fisheries or ports[11]. Furthermore, the department of fisheries act gives the Minister of the FDO [12] the influence, responsibilities and affairs, and extending to all matters even those that Parliament has jurisdiction relating to; marine sciences, coastlines and inland fisheries, and the arrangement of programs and implementation of policies. [11]

What and How Fishermen Can Fish

Currently, the ministry has measures in place to ensure the protection of west coast sharks through the Pacific Fisheries Regulation. The regulation sets open and close dates, and equipment restrictions. Furthermore, the ministry of fishery’s ability to grant or deny permits to any company allows them to revoke permits from companies they feel are finning [9]. As of 2015 Canada’s Pacific Fisheries Regulation does not protect sharks from sport fishing on the Pacific, however, does maintain a closed season from January 1st to December 31st to commercial fishermen, allowing the catch of sharks for with hand lines, and angling gear. [9]

Environmental Degradation

On a larger scale environmental degradation effects sharks globally. Ocean acidification and warming both adversely affect the number of sharks in natural habitats, and as such, a more holistic view must be considered when discussing shark conservation. Ocean acidification greatly reduces shark reproduction success and places great strain on shark populations[13]. Furthermore, as oceans warm, sharks and their prey must move further North, thus causing northern waters to be more concentrated with shark species not normally endemic to the region. Great White sharks are projected to be common in British Columbian waters as oceans warm, ensuring that shark policy in British Columbia is critical preserving new shark species as shark composition changes[14]. Hence legislation that effects sharks, for example climate change legislation, does not need to directly pertain to sharks, but will influence them nonetheless.

Evidence for the Problem

The rate of sharks caught have steadily increased since 1955. About 100 million sharks are killed each year for various reasons, including:

  • Recreational Fishing
  • Commercial Fishing
  • Cultural Reasons
  • Bycatch

These are all major impacts on the shark population. Blue Shark is one of the most impacted sharks in off-shore by-catch [7]. They are the most used product in shark fin soup and no limits exist on managing their population. There are not any management plans for this species and a CITES listing will need to be made for any chance of improvement [7].

Basking shark filter feeding. By Chris Gotschalk via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Media Influence on Shark Population Decline

The negative portrayal of sharks in media and cinematic films has completely shaped the way humans perceive sharks. For over 60 years this misconception has been heavily influencing the extirpation and conservation of most species of sharks. The first viable source was Cousteau's "The Silent World", the first underwater film. At the time, it brought to life underwater ecosystems and showed amazing biodiversity beneath the ocean's surface. Shortly after the film was released there was an extreme decline in the population of Basking Sharks off the North Pacific Coast [5]. This decrease arose due to the misconception that Basking Sharks were salmon predators and therefore a threat to fisheries in the US and Canada. This promoted a mass fishing and killing of the species, leaving basking sharks near extinction by the late 1950s [5].

By the 1980s and 1990s there was a surge of documentary films being released, portraying sharks as deadly monsters. The largest and most impactful media influence was the 1975 movie "Jaws" [5]. This movie was a huge influencer in the development of a shark-hunting culture in the years to follow. Since then, shark populations in the US and Canada declined 50-90% [15]. A positive outcome of this decline was an increase in funding for shark research since up until then funding was negligible [15].

Negative Effects of Ecotourism

Shark-based ecotourism has been becoming increasingly popular over the past two decades [5]. Similar to ecotourism in Africa, shark based ecotourism is appealing based on the rarity of an encounter. This industry has turned a 300 million USD profit per year and can be split into three main areas:

  • recreation
  • recreational fishing
  • underwater encounters, and above water encounters [5].

Recreational fishing is the biggest concern for the conservation of sharks, although due to regulations there is a portion of the catch that must be released [16]. Recreational fishing is similar to African trophy hunting, inspired by a man vs nature mentality. As per legislation, catch and release fisheries are obligated to fishing sharks in such a way that they survive after being released. Recent research shows that depending on gear and practices used, there is a mortality rate of up to 90% for some species of sharks [16].

Underwater shark encounters in the Pacific North Coast began in the late 1970s on Hornby island after the discovery of a Sixgill Sharks population. In this area there were rules put in place to minimize the impacts of humans. These rules include a ban on the baiting of sharks and minimal diving time [5]. Throughout Canada and the United States, shark sightings in ecotourism has decreased significantly. Despite this, due to the rarity and excitement of sightings, these companies bring in huge revenue and economic value to their communities and cities [5].

Environmental Advocates

Environmental advocates and non-profits have been pressuring for companies to shift to a catch and release platform rather than a catch and kill platform, as recent studies have shown that recreation fishing has impacted shark population more than commercial fishing [16]. This has pushed for "Shark Free Marinas", a non-profit that advocates for marinas to restrict fishing within the marina waters [16]. All of these factors are contributing to the conservation of sharks in the North Pacific.

Options for Remedial Actions

In past years, the management of shark species as surfaced as a new priority in the management of marine conservation. Worldwide catches of marine mammals and fish, especially sharks, has increased steadily within the past two decades as a result of a high demand for shark fins for cultural use internationally. As a result, the Government of Canada has created and implemented several legislative measures to aid in the management and maintenance of shark populations. Today, it is estimated that approximately 26–73 million sharks are traded annually for their fins [17]. Although the practice of finning is practiced as often in Canada as it is on the global scale, finning regulations could be altered to adopt a more precautionary policy while reaffirming Canada’s engagement to the management of shark conservation [17]. Implementing policies such as “fins-attached” policy ensure that the fins are removed from the shark once landed so it can be done in carefully and effectively, This practice will ensure that the fins are properly extracted to avoid waste and ensure the highest fin quality and market price.

Further actions need to be taken in order to mitigate and reduce incidental mortality of marine mammals. Improved gear technology, as well as the development and enforcement of handling and release practices in collaboration with fisherman, are examples of technical actions that could aid in reducing incidental catches and shark mortality. The use of circle hooks have been identified as a method to reduce the likelihood of blue shark mortality by reducing the probability of deep-hooking in Canadian waters [17]. Creating incentives for fisherman to handle sharks with care may help to minimize sources of injury and mortality among sharks in Canada.

Shark Bycatch Management

Canadian governments are inadequately addressing and dealing with one of the largest threats to our oceans and its species. It is estimated that nearly 10.3 million tonnes of sea life are unintentionally caught each year on the international platform [18]. Bycatch is the collection of unwanted fish or other marine life that is unintentionally caught during commercial fishing. Bycatch may also contain a variety of marine megafauna and lower trophic level species that are essential in the maintenance and function of marine ecosystems and the continued provision of marine ecosystem services [19]. Discarded catch, mainly unwanted fish components as a result of processing them at sea can raise ecological concern as it can alter the natural diet of sharks. There are methods that can reduce the probability that sharks fall victim to commercial fishing bycatch;

  • Use fish rather than squid for bait
  • Avoiding shark prone hotspots
  • Setting fishing gear in deeper waters
  • Moving upon interaction with a shark[20]

Utilizing gear technology solutions will aid in reducing the frequency of sharks involved in commercial fishing bycatch. Using fish rather than squid for bait reduces shark catches by a staggering 30%[19]. Implementing changes in fishing gear technology can significantly reduce bycatch of numerous marine species while lessening the strain of commercial fishing on marine ecosystems.

Recreational fisheries pose a serious threat to rare and vulnerable species yet are generally poorly documented by government agencies. The Canadian Maritime Recreational Shark Fishery has been active since 1994, and has been host to numerous shark derbies over the years. Recreational shark fisheries such as the aforementioned provide an opportunity for biological data to be collected to help determine the general health of the shark population. Participants of these events are required to collect specific information regarding the shark’s length, weight, sex, location caught and whether it was landed or released [21]. Recreational fisheries should strive to impose a catch-and-release policy for all species of sharks caught during derbies such as these. Prohibiting lethal shark derbies and replacing them with a system of tag and release will allow the same data to be accumulated without unnecessary mortality (Godin & Worm, 2018). This practice would create a platform for education on the importance of shark conservation while demonstrating scientific research being conducted in a supportive manner to the shark population in Canada. Adopting this approach support other efforts for conservation of shark species in Canada while demonstrating good practices on an international scale.


Clearly, sharks are an integral part of marine ecosystems and without them marine ecosystems will face trophic cascade and environmental degradation. There are current legislative procedures in place that the government of Canada has put in place known as the National Plan of Action for Sharks that show recommendations and guidelines, followed by programs and policies that are put in place to reduce the number of sharks that are harmed each year. However, the fishing practices that occur off of our coasts are having direct impacts on sharks and their ecosystems through; overfishing, and bycatch. Overfishing reduces food supply for the sharks, while bycatch can further harm the physical health of sharks. The amount of fish caught should be more regulated off the coastlines of Canada. The existing Canadian management framework for shark populations is well-developed despite its demonstrating certain shortcomings in terms of remedial actions. Continuing shark conservation management must remain a top priority for the Canadian government and its citizens to ensure the legal rights of sharks and other marine life along the coasts of Canada.


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Post image:  By SST Kathy Hough via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.