The frenzy over Discovery Channel ‘Shark Week’ sweeps North American television stations beamed to television sets around the world offers an excellent opportunity to consider the plight of sharks in Canadian waters. Here in Canada we are lucky enough to host some of the most rare and unique sharks. Every year the basking shark comes into our waters. This slow moving filter feeding shark is more akin to a whale growing up to 12 meters, the second largest shark in the world. Canada is also home to one of the world’s smallest shark – the spiny dogfish and an arctic shark, the Greenland shark. Most people are surprised to find out that 28 species of shark spend at least part of their lives in our cold waters. This surprise is often followed by fear.
31 years after Jaws hit the big screen western pop culture continues to offer up images of sharks as ‘man eaters’. Most people never have the opportunity to see sharks in their natural habitat, instead forming their feelings towards these incredibly important animals from sensational media coverage – the classic shot of a great white shark bearing its razor sharp teeth; photos of dead sharks hanging upside down, conquered as fishing trophies; a killer waiting to get us when we take to the waters.
The reality is, sharks have much more to fear from us than we have to fear from them. With millions of people flocking to beaches ever year there are still only four to five fatalities from shark bites worldwide annually. More people die from run ins with coconuts and falling pop machines. On the flip side, humans systematically fish up to 100 million sharks out of the oceans every year.
Globally, shark populations have declined by 90% since the 1960s. We have become the most efficient predator in the ocean. In just a few decades humans have managed to nearly decimate an animal that has been living in our oceans for 400 million years. Sharks mature slowly, reproducing late in life. Most give birth to live babies and only a handful a year making them extremely vulnerable to fishing pressure. As apex predators they serve a vital balancing role in ocean systems that scientists are only now beginning to understand.
There are encouraging signs that perhaps attitudes are changing and we are realizing the immediate importance of taking action to restore balance in our oceans. In recent years, countries around the world have taken bold steps to ensure sharks have a fighting chance to survive. Following the lead of Samoa, Palau, Honduras, and the Maldives, this July the Bahamas declared their entire country’s waters a sanctuary prohibiting commercial fishing of sharks. Also in 2011, Chile became the newest country to ban the practice of ‘finning’, cutting off only the fins of a shark and dumping the body, often alive, overboard. The U.S. passed the Shark Conservation Act in January, closing their loopholes on the practice of shark finning.
Where is Canada on shark conservation? While Canada has banned shark finning, loopholes in the ban remain and changes on the water for shark protection have stalled. In Atlantic Canada, the porbeagle shark has been fished down to only a quarter of its 1960s population. Since the European Union banned directed fishing for porbeagle shark last year, Canada remains one of the only nations to allow fisheries to keep and sell this endangered shark species and, in fact, blocked an Atlantic wide ban on fishing for this shark at international meetings last year. Recovery to healthy population levels for porbeagles under the Canadian plan that allows fishing will take upwards of 100 years.
Fishing for other sharks continues with no limits on how many can be caught or discarded at sea. In Canadian waters, the major threat to sharks is being caught incidentally by fisheries while they are targeting for other types of fish. Hundreds of thousands of sharks are caught every year this way and tossed back overboard, tens of thousands dead or dying. There are no penalties for this ‘bycatch’ – it is an environmental subsidy supporting the export of more lucrative commercial fish. Many of these sharks, like blue shark, are as yet only described as ‘threatened’ in our waters. Unfortunately, despite their declining populations, it seems we have to wait for something to get to ‘endangered’ to act.
Canada has ample opportunity to close the loopholes in the finning at sea ban, implement enforced limits on shark bycatch, ensure that all sport fishing for sharks is catch and release only, support fisheries independent research on sharks, and make sure that an accurate count is kept of all sharks being caught and discarded both dead and alive in Canadian fisheries.
Canada often excuses their inaction on sharks by explaining that our fisheries only represent a small part of the problem and anything we do will not make a dent in the problems facing these highly migratory species. Sound familiar? It is the same argument trotted out for our unwillingness to act on climate change mitigation. Other countries are not shirking their global responsibilities and are trying to galvanize the world to move forward on shark conservation.
Conservation takes boldness and courage – a willingness to be a leader. The president of the tiny nation of Palau has stepped forward and is trying to galvanize the world to fight to protect sharks declaring “ we bring to you the audacity of a small island nation to try to make a difference before it is too late and our oceans are mere graveyards of what once was.”
Not satisfied with our government’s actions, citizens are taking matters into their own hands pursuing protection through other avenues. Earlier this year, Brantford, Ontario, became Canada’s first city to pass a law banning the sale of shark fin products. Brantford follows the lead of bans in Hawaii, Saipan, Oregon and Washington. Toronto has entered the fray and will be voting on a ban in the fall.
Let’s hope our government follow the lead as people begin to think of sharks as wildlife integral to the health of our oceans, not a mere commodity to be exploited. To ignore the devastating decline in these predators numbers is to turn our back on our responsibility, our global heritage, and the threat to our own future prosperity that depends upon healthy ecosystems. Every second breath comes from the ocean and we are playing a dangerous game by fishing out what many refer to as the ‘oceans balancer’.