Endangered fin whale meat shipped through Canada: this sucks!

Yesterday a story ran in the Vancouver Sun entitled “Shock over meat of endangered whales shipped through Canada“.  The crux of the article is that shipments of meat from fin whales, a species listed as endangered on the IUCN Red Data list, have been travelling through Canada to their destination in Japan. And furthermore, Canadian authorities have been powerless to stop them.

Fin whale,  Baja California Mexico  © Y.-J. Rey-Millet / WWF-Canon
Fin whale, Baja California Mexico © Y.-J. Rey-Millet / WWF-Canon

I thought I’d take the opportunity to explain a bit of the backstory, and also comment on what can maybe be done about the situation.
The fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) was originally listed on CITES Appendix I in 1981. That means that since 1981, international commercial trade in fin whale has been prohibited by the member countries of CITES. As of 2014, 179 countries, including every major trading country, have joined the Convention. Hence, commercial international trade in fin whale meat should have ended years ago. However, under the terms of the Convention, any member country is entitled to take a reservation on any CITES species listing. If a country enters a reservation on a species, then that country is except from the CITES trade restrictions for that species. Iceland, Japan and Norway have all taken out reservations on fin whales. This means that these countries may legally trade the species between each other, although they cannot commercially trade fin whales with any other member countries of CITES.
Another factor at play is that, under the terms of the Convention, CITES restrictions don’t apply to the transit or transhipment of specimens through a member country if the specimens remain in Customs control. And that is the situation for these shipments of fin whale meat. They were shipped “in transit” through Canada and were not actually imported. As a result, Canadian authorities had the authority to inspect the shipments, but could not detain or seize them. The in-transit shipping of fin whale meat through Canada is a very unusual situation. Canada just happens to be conveniently located between Iceland and Japan.
The reality is that having the meat of an endangered species transhipped through Canada sucks. I don’t like it, I know the Canadian authorities responsible for enforcing CITES don’t like it, and I’m pretty sure you don’t like it! So what can be done about it?
First of all, the CITES Convention allows for stricter domestic measures regarding the conditions for trade, possession or transport of specimens of species included in the Appendices. Does that mean that Canada could enact legislation or regulations that would not allow trans-shipment of CITES Appendix I species through Canada? I don’t know, but I hope that the government of Canada is investigating and will implement legal means for Canada to prevent future shipments of fin whale meat from transiting through the country. I would also encourage shipping companies to refuse to transport fin whale meat, or the products of any endangered species. I feel that they have a responsibility to do the right thing. It just isn’t worth the money.
The countries that have taken out CITES reservations, and on which species, are listed here: https://cites.org/eng/app/reserve.php.