Endangered fish basking in enlightenment

It’s a first.

Canada has acknowledged the endangerment of a marine fish species – the basking shark (Cetorhinus maxiumus) — and this weekend a provincial expert will be in Telegraph Cove to speak about this fascinating fish.

Despite our best efforts to wipe them out

It’s a first.

Canada has acknowledged the endangerment of a marine fish species – the basking shark (Cetorhinus maxiumus) — and this weekend a provincial expert will be in Telegraph Cove to speak about this fascinating fish.

Basking sharks used to be common in the coastal waters of B.C.

As the second largest fish species in the world, they could be half the size of a city bus and could be seen at the surface of the ocean, “basking” to feed on plankton.

It’s a long-lived species too, believed to be able to reach 50 years of age.

However, even the most seafaring fisher is now unlikely to see one off our coast — there have been less than 15 sightings of basking sharks since 1996.

So what happened?

We slaughtered them.

These sharks were put on the federal fisheries Destructive Pests list in 1949, and from 1955 to 1969 there was a federal eradication program directed at these benign, plankton-eating giants.

In these years, the federal fisheries patrol vessel, the Comox Post, even had a blade mounted on its bow designed specifically to slice basking sharks in half. This species of shark has only the tiniest of teeth and does not compete for a commercial fishery like the sea lions, seals and killer whales that were also culled in that era.

The motivation for the “pest control” of these gentle giants was they got trapped in gill nets, causing damage to fishing gear.

As an indicator of how far we’ve come since then, imagine the social outrage today if a magazine celebrated the ingenuity of the Comox Post’s blade and illustrated how the executioner’s tool was used.

Nov. 1956’s edition of Popular Mechanics featured just that and the June 22, 1955 front page of the Victoria Times included a photo with the text: “This is a basking shark, basking and leering. But the smirk will soon be wiped off its ugly face by the fisheries department, which is cutting numerous sharks down to size” (from The Slaughter of B.C.’s Gentle Giants by Scott Wallace and Brian Gisborne).

Basking sharks survived as a species for 30 million years but have been pushed to the brink of extinction in B.C. by just a couple of decades of human intolerance, misunderstanding and mismanagement.

But, as a testament to how quickly human social evolution can occur, we have gone from being executioners to acknowledging the species’ endangerment in just more than 40 years.

In February 2010, the Pacific population received legal protection by being listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

The Recovery Strategy has just been finalized.

Maybe our evolved enlightenment can help bring back the basking shark from the brink of extinction.

Join Romney McPhie, a research biologist working on sharks, skates and rays at the Pacific Biological Station in Telegraph Cove for her presentation on basking sharks Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Whale Interpretive Centre.

On Aug. 21 at 1 p.m., Romney will also be doing a presentation at the WIC for the Young Naturalists Club. All children with adult supervision are welcome.

Jackie Hildering is a biologist, avid scuba diver and marine educator. See more at http://www.themarinedetective.ca.


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