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Shark Fins Bill

Volume 726: debated on Friday 20 January 2023

[Relevant documents: Correspondence between the Chair of the Petitions Committee and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, relating to animal welfare, dated 24 May and 12 July 2022; e-petition 300535, The UK should ban the importation of Shark Fins; and e-petition 582564, Ban the sale and possession of shark fin in the UK.]

Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Third time.

I am delighted to present the Bill for its Third Reading, and thank all Members who have supported it so far, as well as all the non-governmental organisations that have advocated for this ban. I am pleased that the Bill has broad support across the House, and I am grateful to the Members who are present for helping to put in place this vital addition to UK legislation to improve global shark conservation.

This small but very important Bill proposes the banning of the import and export of detached shark fins and shark fin products. Sharks are already at great threat from overfishing, driven by demand for shark products. In the United Kingdom, shark finning has been banned for nearly 20 years. It is a highly wasteful practice and a huge barrier to effective fisheries management, and it is so cruel: fins are removed from a live shark, and its finless body is returned to the water where the shark dies as a result of bleeding or suffocation. It is therefore not surprising that a strong opposition to shark finning and trade in detached shark fins was rightly amplified by respondents to a call for evidence run by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A thought has crossed my mind. Welsh Members of Parliament represent 6% of the total membership of the House, but I am proud to say that, as two Welsh Members have presented Bills, they represent 40% today. That bears testimony to the vibrancy of Welsh democracy.

May I ask the hon. Lady what exactly shark fin products are used for in the UK? Obviously I am thinking about cutting off the demand, but I would also be interested to know what products are involved and for what purposes they are used.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention—and I really like his maths.

Shark fins are a traditional delicacy used in shark fin soup, mainly in Asian communities. We do not intend to ban that; we intend only to ban the imports. If the shark is ethically landed and the fins are removed when it is dead and then made into soup, that is fine. However, to ensure that we are not inadvertently fuelling unsustainable practices abroad, it is crucial that we ban the import and export of detached shark fins and shark fin products. Only sharks landed with their fins naturally attached will be available for sale. That is widely accepted as best practice for the enforcement of shark finning regulations, requiring that fins remain naturally attached to the body until it is brought to land.

I thank the hon. Member for giving way on that point. I remember speaking on Second Reading of this Bill and applaud her for getting it through to Third Reading.

Currently, to be crystal clear, those involved in shark finning get sharks when they are very close to the boat and pull them on. They cut off their fins in a horrific way and then throw them back into the water. With no ability to swim, the shark effectively becomes a torpedo, drowning as it falls to the ground, which is just so cruel and abhorrent. The number that this happens to is incredible—the figure is literally in the millions. Does the hon. Lady agree that, by ending that abhorrent act through the Bill, we will be ensuring that the ecosystems in our seas and oceans are much better supported?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support on Second Reading and today. His graphic description is absolutely right. It is an abhorrent practice. The stats show that 73 million sharks would have to be killed each year to match the volume of fins illegally traded on the global market. That is between 1 million to 2 million tonnes, which is unbelievable.

The import and export of detached fins has already been banned in Canada, India and the United Arab Emirates. It is time that we followed suit. As a nation that cares deeply about the sustainability of our oceans, we must not be left behind on this issue. On Third Reading today, I hope that we can agree that the Bill will deliver a significant improvement to safeguard the future populations of our sharks. I am pleased to commend the Bill to the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on introducing this important legislation. Although for many in the UK sharks are associated with “Jaws”, they are actually one of our planet’s oldest species and inhabit seas and oceans in all corners of the world. Although the UK and the EU have banned the cruel and wasteful practice of shark finning since 2003, we still facilitate the finning of sharks in other territories by allowing the import and export of detached shark fins.

Alongside formal imports, people can bring in up to 20 kg of detached fins as an allowance for personal consumption. Not only is 20 kg a significant quantity for any one household to eat, making around 700 bowls of soup, but it has a value of up to £4,000 and is entering the country tax-free. I am glad that the Government have clarified that this Bill will also prevent the import of fins using this exemption and stop the unregulated trade of fins into this country.

Sharks have been in our oceans for more than 420 million years, surviving five mass extinctions. They are an important species in our oceans as apex predators in the food chains and maintain balance for a healthy food chain. We already know that the overfishing of sharks has negative effects on the species below them, reducing the diversity and health of reefs and other environments.

Growing up along the coast and now representing the beautiful coastline of North Devon, I have always been delighted to find mermaid purses. Once thought to be, literally, the purses of mermaids washed ashore, they are actually egg cases of sharks and rays, and a good indication of the health of their populations in our coastal waters. I urge anyone who lives there to register their egg case finds with the Great Eggcase Hunt, which was established in 2003 to help scientists track our shark and ray populations.

If we are not to repeat the mistakes of our past, we must stop overfishing our apex predators. Given their size, it is estimated that, at the peak of whaling, there was an 80% reduction in the amount of carbon captured, stored or sequestered, by our seas, roughly equivalent to 50,000 hectares of forest a year. Like sharks, blue carbon is still not clearly understood, but it is crucial to the health of our oceans and our planet. Targeting apex predators, which can reach massive sizes, is adding significant amounts of carbon to our atmosphere.

It would be beyond unacceptable if, after surviving five mass extinctions over 420 million years, sharks were driven to extinction for nothing more than their fins. I applaud the Bill. Now that we have left the EU, we are freer to enact this legislation, and I hope that other nations follow our lead.

I am the MP for a coastal constituency—the Isle of Anglesey, or Ynys Môn—so the marine world is significant to me and to my constituents.

I am passionate about marine life. My first job, working with Terry Nutkins of “Animal Magic” fame—a few Members may remember that—was caring for dolphins. As a British Sub-Aqua Club diver, I have dived many times with sharks, coming face to face with hammerhead sharks and whale sharks—those have been some of my more terrifying experiences, along with having babies and standing for election. I also studied marine microbiology at university.

Many of my constituents are involved in the fishing and maritime industries, others work with the excellent Bangor University School of Ocean Sciences, and yet more are deeply concerned about animal welfare, such as those who work so hard at the Anglesey Sea Zoo. I represent them all in my support for the Bill, which has been brought to the House by my friend the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees). Today, we could make history by passing two important new Bills sponsored by two Welsh Members of Parliament.

It is not known exactly how many sharks are killed or wounded each year by finning, but it is estimated that the figure runs into the tens or hundreds of millions. Although the UK banned the landing of fins in 2003, that has not stopped the import of fins—it was estimated that the UK imported about five tonnes of shark fins in 2020. Those figures equate to thousands of sharks, which are often landed and have their fins removed before their finless bodies are returned to the water. Without fins, sharks cannot swim, which means that they cannot obtain oxygen. As a result, they are left to drown slowly. The worldwide figure for sharks lost to that practice is in the millions.

The greatest threat to sharks is overfishing, and the shocking loss of such beautiful creatures for the sake of just their fins is further contributing to their decline. Studies have shown that wild shark populations have declined by about 70% since 1970, and some species are now even considered critically endangered, so we risk seeing them disappear from our waters for ever. Sharks are fascinating and diverse creatures that are important to the biodiversity of our oceans. They play an important role in keeping our oceans healthy, and their loss has a significant impact on our marine ecosystems.

The UK Government support the Bill. The EU, along with the UK, banned the landing of fins not attached to sharks 20 years ago, and in 2009 we enforced a “fins attached” policy to UK vessels. Our 2021 action plan for animal welfare reiterates our commitment to banning both the import and export of shark fins. I am proud of the strong track record that we have in animal welfare and of the measures that the Government are supporting through Parliament to improve that area further.

It is barbaric that we still allow the import and export of detached shark fins. I fully support the Bill, which will not only protect sharks but make a significant statement to the world about the UK’s commitment to seeing an end to the trade in shark fins.

It is a pleasure to support the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees), which will set out in statute vital powers to end a cruel and ruthless practice. In truth, we should not be debating shark finning in the context of this private Member’s Bill given that a policy on the matter was set out in the last Conservative manifesto.

It important to outline the reasons for ending our part in that barbaric practice by describing its impact not only on sharks but on our planet’s fragile ecosystem. Sharks are found in open oceans. Their numbers have plummeted by 71% over the last half century, and 60% of shark species are now threatened by extinction. The practice of shark finning—the epitome of cruelty—is a big part of that.

Between 2013 and 2017, the UK imported 300 tonnes of shark fins. We continue to be a significant importer of shark fins, but I hope that that will end after today. In 2021, the outgoing Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), announced a world-leading ban on what he correctly described as a “barbaric” practice. That ban was in line with the 2019 Conservative manifesto and the Government response to a 2020 petition to Parliament, in which they said:

“Following the end of the Transition period we will explore options consistent with World Trade Organisation rules to address the importation of shark fins from other areas, to support efforts to end illegal shark finning practices globally.”

The call for evidence from international companies such as Amazon on the banning of shark fin soup and the trade of shark fins was concluded. Today, the hon. Member for Neath is bringing forward the Bill, but it should have come forward in a broader Government Bill about animals abroad. I hope the Minister will tell us when that Bill will arrive and we will see a whole range of animal welfare issues addressed, as well as this one, which hopefully we will put to bed. It is now time to put in statute effective legislation to make a real dent in this unsustainable, unnecessary and barbaric practice. It will have little economic cost and will allow us to lead the world on this issue. Fundamentally, shark finning is morally indefensible. It is now time to play a part in its end.

I am delighted to be here speaking again on this important subject. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for all her great work to introduce this Bill and for navigating it through to this stage. I also thank all Members who have contributed not just today with their perceptive speeches and interventions but on Second Reading and in Committee. It has massive support right across the House. I am delighted that we will continue to assist in every way that we can to ensure swift passage through both Houses so that this important Bill gets on to the statute book.

I normally work so closely with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), but I was a little concerned about his slight negativity and the shadow he threw over the Bill by asking whether it should be brought forward in some other Bill. We consider this issue so important that we specifically allocated time for it. We want to support this individual issue because it will make such a difference, as we all agree, to protecting this glorious and precious species. It is just another measure to be added to all the other work we are doing as a Government internationally to help with shark conservation.

Sadly, this species has undergone the most immense suffering. One of our Whips was singing the “Jaws” tune before I took to the Dispatch Box, but the other day I heard the director of that film apologise for the fact that he has caused that horrible feeling that we all have about sharks, being scared and fearful of them instead of revering them for the precious and amazing creatures that they are. They play such an important role in their hierarchy in our food chain, because once they go, all the other creatures below them are under threat. They face enough threats as it is with global warming, warming seas, coral reefs changing and, critically, overfishing—a point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), who has incredible marine knowledge. We have so many other threats, including plastics. We are working on everything else we can do to help on the international front, but things such as this Bill will be so helpful.

Shark finning is a practice that has been banned in the UK for almost 20 years. We also have a “fins naturally attached” policy, which means that sharks must be landed with all their fins on their bodies. This Bill means that we can go even further and ban the trade in detached fins—that is critical point—and in shark fin products. The Bill outlines our determination that shark finning must stop wherever it takes place. I have already said how irreplaceable these animals are.

The call for evidence that we ran through DEFRA showed how strong the opposition to shark funning is among individuals and all the other marine organisations who worked on this Bill. I must thank them because they played a great role. The sheer grossness of it was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell), for which I must thank him. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) made a sensible input on the stats involved—a very good point. We have widespread backing.

A point that was raised that is worth reiterating is that when we were in the EU it would have been extremely difficult to take action on this issue. Any restrictions on the shark fin trade would have needed agreement from all member states. The great news is that we now have much more freedom to introduce stricter measures and we are demonstrating through this Bill that we are doing exactly that.

I will give a few details about the Bill itself. It will ban the import and export of detached shark fins into and out of Great Britain. The ban applies not only to whole shark fins, but to parts of fins and products made from fins, such as tinned shark soup—we had a lot of discussion about that on Second Reading, but that has been covered. In that context, “shark fins” means,

“any fins or parts of fins of a shark, other than the pectoral fins”,

which are part of skate and ray wings, and “shark” means,

“any fish of the taxon Elasmobranchii”,

as set out in clause 1.

Clause 2 amends the existing shark finning regulation 1185/2003, which forms part of retained EU law and includes the amendments in regulation 605/2013. The amendment in this Bill is to ensure that shark finning is not taking place by any other country’s fishing vessels in UK waters or by any UK vessel wherever it fishes—that is an important point. We remain firmly committed to building on the UK’s strong position on shark conservation.

We have done so much internationally; I wanted to mention that, very positively, even since this Bill was introduced last year almost 100 shark and ray species have been afforded greater protection under the convention on international trade in endangered species at the 19th meeting of the conference of parties in November. That list brings the majority of global trade in shark fins under CITES regulation for the first time. That is an important move and shows how we work globally on this issue and how important our position is in leading the way on conservation, not only on sharks, but on the wider ocean work.

I thank all hon. Friends and hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), who is no longer in her place but who raised the important fact that we are now banning the 20 kg personal allowance for consumption. I was pleased that she mentioned the egg cases—did you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that some sharks lay their eggs in little egg pouches and they wash up on the beach? I thought they were bits of seaweed, but they are actually pouches in which one finds some shark eggs, and they are great to look at.

In winding up, I thank again the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for introducing the Bill and all hon. Members across the House who have taken part in the debate. I wish the Bill all the best on its way and reiterate the Government’s support for it.

With the leave of the House, I would like to thank everyone here today for their contributions to the debate. Notably, I thank the hon. Member for Watford (Dean Russell) for his graphic description of the abhorrent shark finning procedure. I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for highlighting the banning of the 20 kg personal allowance, which will also apply to businesses. I thank the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes)—I really like his maths when it comes to our Welsh Members of Parliament—for allowing me to clarify the shark products issue. Finally, I thank my friend the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie)—such a beautiful constituency, probably as beautiful as Neath; I did not know that she worked for “Animal Magic” and had been swimming with sharks. It is amazing what we learn in these debates.

I thank all those hon. Members who are not here today, but have supported this important Bill in its previous stages on Second Reading and in Committee. I could not close the debate without again thanking all the organisations that have campaigned for and supported the Bill. They have all contributed to developing and progressing the Bill so far, and I am sure they will continue to support its progress in the other place. Most of them are in the Public Gallery today.

I thank the Minister for her continued support and for her contribution to the debate, which is much appreciated, and the shadow Minister for his support. I thank all the Clerks and the DEFRA officials for their advice. I also thank again the wonderful team in my office, who have worked so hard to make this happen, and give special thanks to the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), for making Friday sittings a success and for the personal support she has given me.

I look forward to seeing this Bill on the statute book and thereby continuing to drive up standards of global shark conservation.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.