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Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Shark Fins Bill, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, Subordinate Legislation


Shark Fins Bill

The Convener

Our second item of business is consideration of the legislative consent memorandum for the Shark Fins Bill. I welcome Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, and her supporting officials, who are Allan Gibb from Marine Scotland and Emma Phillips from the Scottish Government. The officials are joining us remotely. I remind them that, if they wish to speak, they should type R in the chat box.

I invite the cabinet secretary to make an opening statement.

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to speak about the Shark Fins Bill and the associated legislative consent motion. Shark finning is the practice of removing fins from a shark at sea and returning the finless body to the water. The Shark Fins Bill is intended to ban the import and export of shark fins that have been obtained using that cruel practice.

It is a private member’s bill that was introduced by Christina Rees MP in June 2022. The bill passed the committee stage in the House of Commons on 16 November with broad cross-party support, and I understand that it passed its third reading in the United Kingdom Parliament last week and is now due to be considered by the House of Lords.

It is right that we maintain the ban on shark finning practices in Scottish waters and ban the import and export of detached shark fins or things containing them.

I was pleased that we were able to secure an amendment to ensure that appeals against certain decisions of the Scottish ministers relating to exemption certificates and final penalty notices are to be made to the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland rather than the UK-wide First-tier Tribunal, which deals with reserved matters. The amendment reflects that those matters fall within devolved competence. I understand that there has been constructive working between my officials and officials in the other fisheries Administrations throughout the bill process, which is on-going, to ensure that there is that co-ordination on the implementation and ultimately the enforcement of the bill.

I am really pleased to recommend supporting the bill, as it aligns with key Scottish Government priorities, including reversing biodiversity loss and enhancing marine environmental protection. The bill also reaffirms Scotland’s firm commitment to animal welfare and ensures that we speak with greater credibility when we are advocating for shark conservation on the global stage. That is why I have recommended the legislative consent motion on the bill.

The Convener

This is one of those topics that we see on the agenda and wonder how it can possibly apply to Scotland. Could you set out the extent to which shark fins have previously been fished or traded in Scotland? You mentioned exemption certificates. Could you tell us exactly what that means and why, if I understand correctly, there should be some exemptions to allow shark fin fishing?

Mairi Gougeon

Active shark finning has been banned in the UK since 2003, and we have a “fins naturally attached” policy in relation to that. Throughout that time, the personal import of shark fins has still been permitted. There has a been a 20kg allowance in relation to imports, and that is what the bill will draw to an end. We do not think that there has been a tremendous amount of trade in that time. As far as I am aware, since 2017, across the UK there has been much movement, but it is important that the loophole is closed, which is exactly what the bill seeks to do.

On your second point, there are some exemptions in the bill, but they apply only in cases when the act of importing a product that contains shark fins or a shark fin is for the benefit of conservation of the species. That is the only case in which such products would be permitted to enter the country.

Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

The bill amends retained European Union law. So, it is assumed that, if the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill passes, the regulation will need to be retained before 2023 to ensure that the bill can operate. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with the UK Government on that?

Mairi Gougeon

Discussions between the UK Government and the Scottish Government on retained EU law are on-going. We had a meeting with the UK Government and the other devolved Administrations at the start of the week. Retained EU law is an on-going issue, and we continue to have those discussions to see what the impacts will be. I have not raised the member’s specific point, which relates to the Shark Fins Bill. As I said, it is an on-going process.

When will you have the opportunity to raise that?

Mairi Gougeon

As I said, the discussions are on-going. We are looking at retained EU law with the UK Government in relation to what will be preserved. I cannot give a definitive response to that question now, but we will, of course, consider that issue.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

The LCM sets out some financial costs. It states that there will be “on-going operational costs” but says that those will be “difficult to quantify”. Why are they difficult to quantify, and to what extent will the costs fall on the Scottish Government and Marine Scotland?

Mairi Gougeon

The costs of the bill relate mainly to any additional powers that we would ask for in relation to the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland. It is not possible for us to quantify that cost at the moment without knowing how many potential cases might come forward. Additional training would also be needed. As I said in a previous response, as far as we are aware, there has been no trade since 2017, but, without knowing how many cases could come up, it is hard to put an exact figure on that.

I ask my officials whether they have anything to add in relation to that cost.

It seems that they do not at the moment.

Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) (Lab)

The minister mentioned that the bill will prevent the import of shark fins. Does she have any further information about fins being used as part of other products—for example, they might be ground up and incorporated into other products—or on whether there has been any research into the impact of the ban on importing such products, how widespread the practice is and how common shark fin importing is?

Mairi Gougeon

That has been one of the interesting issues during this process and in the discussions on the bill. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs analysis estimates that the impact on business would be in the region of £200,000. One positive thing about the bill is that it not only covers shark fins but prohibits the import of products that contain shark fins, such as tinned shark fin soup. It encompasses those products.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP) (Committee Substitute)

The committee’s briefing papers state:

“The global trade in shark fins is estimated to be 16-17,000 tonnes per year, resulting in the death of 97 million sharks annually.”

That is a huge amount, and I just wanted to ensure that those figures were pointed out. You said that the issue is not a big one for us, in Scotland, but I want to ensure that we are vocal about those figures.

Mairi Gougeon

You are absolutely right. That was one of the things that shocked me when I looked at the information on the issue. The practice has been banned in the UK since 2003, and it does not generally take place here. There are other figures. For example, I think that 73 million sharks are needed to provide every 1 million to 2 million tonnes of shark fins that are traded. It is a cruel and horrendous practice, and the bill is an important step forward in trying to put an end to the trade and in discouraging the practice.

Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

One point that I want to get on record, which we can see in our briefing paper, is the sheer scale of the issue—97 million sharks are killed for 16,000 to 17,000 tonnes of fins, which is horrendous.

The cabinet secretary mentioned shark fin soup in tins. Do we import tins of shark fin soup, and where do they come from?

Mairi Gougeon

I would have to look into that in more detail, but that will be covered by the import ban. I could not give you an idea of the scale of that trade. Again, my officials might have further information on the specifics of that question.

Jim Fairlie

The point that I want to make is that we are banning the import of whole shark fins, but we would still be encouraging the trade if we allowed processed shark fins to come into the country as a product to be consumed.

That is why the import ban covers shark fins and things containing shark fins.

The Convener

That concludes our evidence session. I thank the cabinet secretary and her officials for attending.

The committee will now review the evidence that it has heard and discuss its report in private. We will return to public session at 10 o’clock.

09:26 Meeting continued in private.  

10:01 Meeting continued in public.