Fishing for fins

December 6, 2012

Off the coast of Vancouver Island, Canada

By Ben Nelms

Last year, Canada became home to the first shark fishery in the world that was labeled with a Marine Stewardship Council certification. This is an internationally recognized certification that lists the B.C Spiny Dogfish Shark industry as ‘certified sustainable seafood.’ The fishery is located in the Pacific waters of Canada, off the coast and around Vancouver Island.

I spent a handful of nights on a commercial fishing boat called the Ocean Sunset. We departed from the small village of Ucluelet, which is on the Western shores of Vancouver Island. The only thing I forgot on land was my sea legs.


After a few hours of rough swells, the sea got the better of me and I was ‘feeding the fish’ as the crew would say. This was terrible for two reasons; Firstly, anyone who has been seasick on a commercial fishing boat knows that the environment is cramped, restless and rotting fish bait surrounds you. Secondly, after working to get access to this boat for nearly two months, I knew I couldn’t stop documenting life on the boat just because I was sick.

The shark fishing itself is interesting and the ship’s crews have the process down like clockwork. The kilometer long lines are flung into the depths of the ocean and two crewmen attach bait with hooks to the line while it unwinds. After placing two of these long lines out in the ocean, the boat hurries back to the first one and starts winching the line up with their catch. The sharks that are caught are brought overboard and seamlessly unhooked and flung into the deep storage freezer below deck in one swift movement.

After a few hours, I had to start looking for different angles. The process is often so quick that they could bring up roughly 10 sharks in a minute. After four days, I had to develop new ways to find a fresh way to photograph this tedious process.

I also developed a friendship with the crew, which is hard not to since the boat is so small. They had to put up with me being on the boat so I would help pitch in on chores – often cutting squid for bait or washing the deck. The crew and the boat are from a small first nation band on Vancouver Island, called the T’Sou-ke first nation. Shark fishing has been in their family for many years and they rely on this industry to live.

There was a lot of by-catch that they pulled up as well. Bright red Rockfish, Skate (a type of Ray), Black Cod and even much larger sharks including Tope Sharks. At one point, when the crew was washing the pools of blood off the deck, a very large Blue Shark appeared next to the boat, attracted by the freshly spilled blood.

There was limited space in the living quarters to begin with and my height of 6’5” did not help ease the discomfort. I brought one medium sized pelican case full of gear which included two bodies, a few lenses and plenty of protective rain gear for the salty splash of water that would soak the deck and my gear imminently. I wore full industrial rain boots and rain coveralls. The days were hot under the glowing sun but frigid when nightfall came.

The harvesting and consumption of sharks is a delicate subject, and this is certainly no truer than in and around Vancouver, British Columbia. With a large Asian population the debate over shark fin soup is at its peak. With many outlying suburbs of Vancouver already banning the sale and consumption of shark fins.

I live in Chinatown, which is on the fringe of downtown Vancouver. The shops below my apartment sell shark fins in bulk, and a restaurant a few steps down the block features shark fin soup on its menu. Will the MSC certification of this local industry change the outcome of banning shark fin products? We can only wait and see.


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The MSC has lost most of its credibility in the real world of marine conservation and management when it started to care more about profits of industries and less about the environment. Certryfying either krill or shark fisheries and condoning this criminal global traffic on shark fins is simply unacceptable by any angle as it perpetuates the shark fin soup cycle, “endorsing” the continuation of this wasteful, unnecessary practice which is the main reason why sharks are becoming endangered globally. I think that besides boycotting shark products it´s time to boycott MSC certification partners as well.

Posted by JoseTruda | Report as abusive

“The harvesting and consumption of sharks is a delicate subject”

about just as delicate as the unprecedented slaughter of elephants happening right now in Africa to feed the demand for ivory in asian countries, and about as delicate as the equally as horrific slaughter of rhino’s for their horns as an asian folk cure and erection builder.

shark fin soup is barbaric, wasteful, and shameful. and this article does nothing but glorify the industry. the MSC is no longer credible, and might as well just come right out and endorse overfishing and species extinction. canada as well lately has been bowing to asian currency with sales of energy resources to china — and now this. NO INTEGRITY WHATSOEVER.

Posted by tatman | Report as abusive

While there are absolutely no doubts that shark fin harvesting is wasteful and unnecessary, and it can only be controlled and even eventually eliminated through proper education and regulations,
But please let me be a reminder to some of you, before you recapitulate your white superiority over other nations seemingly, to use one commentator’s word, “barbaric” cultures, check out the definition of “white hunter” r
NO practices in the world are more “barbaric” then killing for pleasure. And of course who cares, because it’s a white man’s game.

Posted by Edbrown | Report as abusive

In the long run, after we destroy our world and ourselves, the earth will be rid of the pest that we are and it will recover.

Posted by UberK | Report as abusive