Basking Sharks: What happened to this amazing species once part of our BC coastal waters.
A brief basking shark history:
Basking sharks have been around for 30 million years, swimming around and eating plankton, much like whales. They have a dorsal fin, but their teeth are tiny. Their extremely large gill slits nearly encircle the head, and are covered in large gillrakers that filter plankton from the water, much like the baleen of a humpback or grey whale.They didn’t attack people, nor did they eat salmon as they were accused of at the time. The only issue was that they got caught up in fishing nets and were deemed a nuisance.
Starting in 1949, basking sharks were declared “Destructive Pests.” This made it okay for for fishermen to kill them with a variety of methods, including harpooning. In 1955, the Department of Fisheries commissioned Alberni Engineering and Shipyards to design and install a death-dealing basking shark cutting blade on the bow of the regional fisheries patrol vessel, the Comox Post.
When the crew of the Comox Post approached a school of basking sharks the knife would be lowered from a hinge by a cable so that the cutting edge was just below the surface of the water. The blade was used over a period of 14 years in the Barkley Sound region, during which time 413 kills were recorded. Other fisheries patrol vessels including the Laurier, Howay and Kitimat rammed basking sharks if they were encountered during patrols. Some figure as many as 300 were killed this way.
Harpooning in Parksville:
The sport of harpooning basking sharks was popular enough that the Canadian Pacific Railway promoted fishing for British Columbia’s basking sharks in publicity releases in the late 1940s. Parksville was promoted as the “shark fishing mecca of the Pacific Northwest” and “scores” of anglers were said to come to Vancouver Island for the sport.
Who has seen a basking shark?
There are only six confirmed records of basking sharks in the Canadian Pacific since 1996, four of which are from trawl fishery observer records.1 Since a tagging program started in 2010, only one has been tagged, off the coast of San Diego.2
The Government of Canada is considering listing basking sharks as endangered off the Coast of British Columbia, and research is underway to try to determine how many are left in our waters and the potential for recovery of these impressive sharks.
What have we learned? Unfortunately, history has a habit of repeating itself.
1Fisheries and Oceans Canada website. Basking Shark, Pacific population.
2Lavoie, Judith. Basking shark program aimed at reversing fortunes. Times Colonist, May 19, 2011.
Wallace, Scott and Gisborne, Brian. Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of BC’s Gentle Giants. New Star Press, 2006.