Basking in shame: Canada must atone for its treatment of gentle giants
Weekly Science Matters column from the David Suzuki Foundation:
December 19, 2008 – The basking shark is huge–often bigger than a bus. As fish go, it’s second in size only to the whale shark. It has been roaming the world’s oceans for at least 30 million years. Mariners throughout history have mistaken it for a mythical sea serpent or the legendary cadborosaurus. Despite its massive size, it feeds mostly on tiny zooplankton.
These are some of the things we know about this gentle giant. But our understanding is limited; we don’t really know much more about them than we did in the early 1800s. One thing we do know is that they used to be plentiful in the waters off the coast of B.C., in Queen Charlotte Sound, Clayoquot Sound, Barkley Sound, and even the Strait of Georgia. Only half a century ago, people taking a ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island may have spotted half a dozen lazily swimming by. But now, reported sightings are down to fewer than one a year off the B.C. coast. All indications are that this magnificent animal is on the edge of extinction. It makes my blood boil!
Over the past two centuries, people have been killing them for sport, for food, for the oil from their half-tonne livers, and to get them out of the way of commercial fishing operations. Many were also killed accidentally by fishing gear.
In their 2006 book Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of B.C.’s Gentle Giants, marine biologist (and David Suzuki Foundation sustainable fisheries analyst) Scott Wallace and maritime historian Brian Gisborne note that the “pest control” methods used in the 1950s and ’60s were particularly gruesome. Basking sharks are so named because they appear to bask as they feed on plankton on the water’s surface. And even though they don’t eat salmon and other fish, they sometimes get tangled in gillnets, hindering commercial fishing operations. So fisheries patrol boats with large knives attached to their bows would slice the animals in half as they “basked” on the surface.
Basking sharks were not the only victims of fisheries-management practices during that time. Thousands of seals, sea lions, black bears, mergansers, and kingfishers were also killed in the name of keeping the salmon stocks for people.
The basking shark is now recognized as an endangered species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, but it is not legally listed or protected under the federal Species at Risk Act. The government is consulting with Canadians until December 30 on whether or not to list and protect them. It goes without saying that they should be protected, but our country’s record on endangered marine species doesn’t leave a lot of room for optimism.
Although public consultation is good, listing of the basking shark–and any other species at risk–should be based on science. And the science is clear: The basking shark is Canada’s most endangered marine fish. The Pacific population is almost extinct. We don’t need a public consultation process to tell us that.
Listing the basking shark would have little or no economic impact, as there are so few sharks left. And because the federal government is largely responsible for the basking shark’s demise, it has an even greater responsibility for its recovery.
If the basking shark does not get listed under the Species at Risk Act, other endangered marine species have little hope for protection. And it will be an indication that when it comes to these vulnerable animals, science does not matter. Already, we have another species recognized as endangered by COSEWIC, the porbeagle shark, but not only has Canada failed to offer it legal protection under the SARA, our country still has a directed fishery for it.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada justifies this lack of protection for the porbeagle shark by claiming that the socioeconomic impacts of listing it would be too great and that recovery and protection is or can be achieved used other means, such as the Fisheries Act.
But as we can see from the example of the basking shark, those other means are not enough. These animals need to be protected under strong species at risk legislation. When one species goes extinct, the repercussions cascade throughout the environment. We can’t afford any more losses.
For more information on how you can help save the basking shark, please visit: