Ruth Jones – 2022 Speech on the Sharks Fin Bill

The speech made by Ruth Jones, the Labour MP for Newport West, in the House of Commons on 15 July 2022.

I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend—my very good friend—the Member for Neath (Christina Rees), for bringing this Bill to the House and for its reaching Second Reading. This is an important issue and I congratulate her on her speech and all the work she is doing on this issue. I know that our hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) wishes he was able to be here to stand in my place and contribute to the debate today.

I also welcome the new Minister to his place, although I must admit that after three days of sitting opposite him, he does not feel that new any more; in fact, he is a seasoned member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team, but I welcome him. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate today, even the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood), with his terrible dad jokes. Sadly, he is no longer in his place. The tales of shark encounters have been particularly fascinating, and I thank everyone for recounting them.

I should say at the outset that the Bill has our full support, so I will not detain the House any longer than necessary. I want the Bill to become law as soon as possible. In many ways, we should not be here today. A ban was announced by Ministers almost a year ago; we are relying on a private Member’s Bill to deliver a policy set out in the Conservative party manifesto. It appears that the caretaker Government have adopted a policy of government by private Member’s Bill.

Putting that aside, let us take a moment to reflect on why we need to end our part in this barbaric practice and to remind ourselves of its impact, not only on sharks but on our planet and increasingly fragile ecosystems. I accept that human beings have an uneasy relationship with sharks. These magnificent creatures are often reduced to the much maligned mythical monsters of “Jaws”, “Deep Blue Sea” and “Sharknado”. On a lighter note, I am sure that every Member can perform the “Baby Shark” dance. I will be checking later that they know how to do it.

However, sharks are apex predators. They are ancient creatures who play a vital role in our oceans, where they balance and maintain fragile marine ecosystems. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) highlighted that clearly. Sharks have low reproductive rates, and overfishing has seen the number found in the open oceans plunge by 71% in half a century. Shamefully, 60% of shark species are now threatened with extinction.

We have heard that the practice of shark finning is the epitome of cruelty. Many Members have highlighted that it entails cutting off the fin while the shark is still alive and then just tossing the shark back into the sea, leaving it to die a slow and painful death from suffocation and blood loss.

Fins are used worldwide for shark fin soup, a dish often associated with wealth and celebration. The fins are used not for taste—I am reliably informed that they have no taste—but for their texture. Of the 100 million sharks killed annually at the hands of humans, 72 million are killed through finning for shark fin soup. The practice, just like rhino dehorning, is one of the most shameful and wasteful acts of animal cruelty in the name of trade still in existence in the 21st century.

The UK’s involvement in the practice goes beyond the clandestine sale of shark fins in restaurants. According to the 2019 HMRC and Traffic report, the UK imported 300 tonnes of shark fins between 2013 and 2017. According to a report of the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries, between 2015 and 2018 the United Kingdom reported between 2,000 and 3,000 tonnes of “marketable fin” shark species landings per year. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) highlighted that we are ranked fourth among EU coastal states for shark landings, behind Spain, Portugal and France.

Those import figures do not take into account the personal allowance, which allows anyone to import up to 20 kg of dried shark fins for personal consumption, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), who has temporarily left her place, highlighted. That can equate to 500 individual fins from up to 60 individual sharks, which can make in excess of 700 bowls of shark fin soup. Under current legislation, all that is exempt from any border control declaration, so I ask the Minister to tighten that loophole as part of the Bill.

Just under a year ago, the outgoing Prime Minister announced a “world-leading” ban on what he correctly described as a “barbaric practice”. That 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.”

Yet that commitment by the Prime Minister, which was widely welcomed by conservationists, campaigners, activists and people across the country, was quietly ditched, reportedly after backlash from senior Ministers worried that, as the legislation was tied up with foie gras and fur coats, the ban would be un-Conservative. I hope that the Minister will be stamping his authority on his new role and ensuring swift action in all those areas.

Today, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Neath, we have the opportunity to be leaders once again. We have now left the European Union. That limits our ability directly to influence a continent-wide ban, but a UK ban on the import and export of shark fins would set an example for our European partners to follow.

My hon. Friend’s Bill follows Canada’s lead. Canada introduced a ban on all imports and exports of shark fins not attached to a carcase, meaning both a reduction in finning overall and the easier identification of the shark species being traded. Canada is a global leader on this issue, but it is not the only one legislating and making a difference. Hawaii banned finning in 2013. Its example caused 13 other US states to follow, culminating in Florida banning the import and export of fins in September 2020. Countries such as Ecuador, Egypt and Honduras have adopted fins naturally attached policies, and Thailand has had great success with its Fin Free Thailand programme, where an extensive list of companies have banned shark fin soup, including 111 hotels, four supermarket chains and nine restaurants. India has established a ban on imports and exports, and the United Arab Emirates has become the first nation to ban all shark products. International companies such as Amazon, Fairmont Hotels and Carrefour are banning the sale of shark fin soup, and the transport of shark fins has been banned by airlines such as Virgin Atlantic, Emirates, BA and Qatar Airways, and shipping companies such as Maersk, MSC and Evergreen.

It is now time to put an end to this unsustainable, unnecessary and barbaric practice. There is little economic cost associated with it, but the Bill allows us to lead the world on this issue—after all, we are global Britain now, aren’t we? The time for the Bill is now and the time for action is now. I am delighted to be here to support the Bill and to support my hon. Friend the Member for Neath.