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 15 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.
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).
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 BC call: 1-877-50-SHARK (1-877-507-4275).
Basking Sharks – The Slaughter of B.C.’s Gentle Giants by Scott Wallace and Brian Gisborne
How BC Killed All the Sharks – Hysteria and a knifelike ram helped us slaughter the benign basking giants by Scott Wallace and Brian Gisborne
David Suzuki Foundation blog; April 2014; What’s bigger than a bus but has prey smaller than a grain of rice
Species at Risk Act (SARA) Species Profile– summary of natural history, threats, etc.