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Basking in History – The Story of B.C.’s Basking Sharks

Photo by Chris Gotschalk (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a first. Canada has acknowledged the endangerment of a marine fish species – the Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maxiumus). 

Basking Sharks used to be common in the coastal waters of British Columbia.  As the second largest fish species in the world, they could be half the size of a city bus (12 m and 4 tonnes) and could be seen at the surface of the ocean, “basking” there 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 ever see one off the B.C. coast. There have been less than 25 sightings of Basking Sharks since 1996. So what happened?

We slaughtered them.

These sharks were put on the Canadian 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 time period. The motivation for the “pest control” of these gentle giants was that they got trapped in gill nets, causing damage to fishing gear.

Click here for this annotated Basking Shark colouring sheet by Romney McPhie who is not only a shark scientist but clearly also an artist (and very skilled educator)!

Who we used to be. Blade on the front of the Comox Post. Source: Popular Mechanics 1956.

As an indicator of how far we have come since then, imagine the social outrage today if a magazine celebrated the ingenuity of the Comox Post’s blade, illustrating how the executioner’s tool was used accompanied by the text “Huge 30-foot basking shark is almost cut in two by sharp-edged ram. The sharks, floating lazily near the surface of the water, are no match for this skillfully handled vessel, which heads directly into a school and catches an individual shark before it is aware of its plight”.  November 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).

Further: “After the initial flurry of press commentary on the shark blade in 1955 and 1956, the Comox Post went about its daily job, firing bullets into the occasional sea lion, seal, or merganser and slicing sharks when seasonally abundant. At the end of each fishing season an annual report was written, and over the years the entries for basking sharks appear to diminish. The blade was used over a period of 14 years in the Barkley Sound region, during which time 413 kills were recorded.” In 1956 alone, 105 Basking Sharks were reported to have been killed.”

Basking Sharks survived as a species for at least 30 million years but have been pushed to the brink 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 over 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 was finalized at the end of July, 2011. 

Only history will tell if our evolved enlightenment is enough or if it came too late for the Basking Shark and many other marine species. The fact that you care enough to read this blog item is every reason for hope.

If you ever see a Basking Shark in British Columbia: call 1-877-507-4275 (1-877-507-4275).

Above: Basking Shark sighting July 17, Caamano Sound, BC. Video by Archie Dundas of the GitGa’at Guardians via Fisheries and Oceans Canada.


Sources:

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2011. Recovery Strategy for the Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus) in Canadian Pacific Waters [Final]. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. v + 25 pp.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2019. Action Plan for the Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus) in Canadian Pacific waters [Proposed]. Species at Risk Act Action Plan Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. iii + 16 pp.

Species at Risk Act (SARA) Species Profile 

The Tyee, December 7, 2016, How BC Killed All the Sharks – Hysteria and a knifelik ram helped us slaughter the benign basking giants by Scott Wallace and Brian Gisborne

Wallace, Scott, and Brian Gisborne. 2006. Basking sharks: the slaughter of BC’s gentle giants. Vancouver: New Star Books.

3 Responses to “Basking in History – The Story of B.C.’s Basking Sharks”

  1. Natasha the short one

    How to bump this? Knew you did a paper on it. I actually have a scan of an original photo of the knife on the Comox Post….BRUTAL

    Reply
  2. R Stennes

    The Comox Post blade was donated to the Port Alberni museum and can be veiwed there. Blade encounters in Barkley sound and near Pachena – 1955 – 65 sharks, 1956 – 105, 1957 – 7, 1958 – 52, 1959 – 47, 1960 – 11, 1961 – 32.

    Reply
    • The Marine Detective

      So very much appreciated. Will update the blog with your information re. number of blade encounters leading to 319 “encounters” in 7 years. Might you have insights into why the number was lower in 1957?

      Reply

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