Guest post by Hector the Blue Shark.
Shark Week has begun! While I like all the attention I get for the week, and while you can certainly find me on Twitter, irate at the latest Could-Megalon-Really-Exist?, No-It-Definitely-Couldn’t, But-We-Are-Going-To-Mislead-The-Heck-Outta-You-Anyway Shark Week special, I thought I’d take some time to address some things that hit a bit closer to home – some of the real problems facing sharks in Atlantic Canada.
I’m a blue shark (Prionace glauca for you science nerds) who spends most of his time the waters around Atlantic Canada, which has not always been the friendliest place for a shark. You see, Atlantic Canada is home to a longline swordfish fishery and this fishery comes at a high price – for every swordfish caught, 3-5 sharks are caught incidentally. This is called “bycatch” which refers to any species caught that isn’t the target species of a fishery. Sea turtles are also caught in this fishery pretty often. The most common bycatch species are Loggerhead sea turtles (Endangered), Leatherback sea turtles (Critically Endangered), Porbeagle sharks (Endangered), Shortfin Mako sharks (Threatened) and Blue sharks (Special Concern) like myself, which are caught in the highest quantities of all.
Since the issue of shark conservation began to really hit the mainstream, shark finning, the practice of removing and keeping a shark’s fins while dumping the rest of the shark overboard, has been a big focus for activists and environmental organizations around the world. While shark finning is illegal in Canada, there’s still lots of room for improvement. Municipal and even federal shark fin bans have been proposed and sometimes adopted around the country, with questionable effectiveness, but Canada has passed up several opportunities to eliminate shark finning in its own waters by way of a “fins naturally attached” policy. Fins naturally attached means that all sharks landed have to be brought to shore with their fins naturally attached to their bodies. Canada’s current policy – and what is practiced in Atlantic Canada’s longline swordfish fishery – is to land sharks with body and fins separate, as long as the fins add up to 5% of the body weight. This policy leaves all kinds of loopholes and it’s pretty widely accepted that the only way to guarantee that no shark finning is happening in a country’s waters is to impose a fins naturally attached rule. Despite this being adopted in many countries, including in the US and EU, Canada has shown no interest in supporting it themselves.
But, when it comes down to it, shark finning isn’t the biggest shark conservation problem in Canada’s waters; bycatch is. Our government has some sway in international meetings over what other countries are or aren’t allowed to do but the fact is that citizens of Canada can only effectively demand action from their own government, not those in foreign lands (as much as we might like to). So this brings us back to the longline swordfish fishery, which is one of the worst offenders for shark bycatch in the country, with tens of thousands of sharks caught and thrown back every year. These operations aren’t properly monitored and with very few observers keeping an eye on what’s going on, we don’t really know the extent of the damage this fishery could be causing. And the kicker? This fishery is certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, despite all the endangered and threatened species it picks up along the way.
Porbeagle sharks in particular have suffered from being caught as bycatch – until very recently there was even a directed fishery in Atlantic Canada for the endangered shark. This fishery has since been closed (and I like to think I had some hand in it) but the populations of porbeagle shark haven’t seen a significant improvement since they were designated as an endangered species a decade ago. The threat they face from fishing hasn’t diminished and there still exists a market for their flesh. For the past few years, at international meetings, governments from around the Atlantic have pushed to ban the retention of these sharks – meaning any porbeagle sharks landed must be thrown back. Canada has been one of the few and sometimes only country to stand in the way of this ban, which could have given porbeagles the protection an endangered species needs and deserves.
So, my Canadian friends, with all the cool shark photos and facts that will be flying around over the next week (and the ridiculous shark attack specials too), I’m hoping that I can shed some light on the real and serious issues that Canada’s sharks are facing in my neck of the woods (or ocean in this case). I’ll be the first to admit that sharks are cool as heck, so why not try to make Canada a safer place for us to swim and spend our lives? Tell your friends about these issues and be sure to follow me on Twitter to learn more about what’s going on with Atlantic Canadian sharks and how you can help. Happy Shark Week!
Hector is a blue shark who spends a lot of his time in the waters around Nova Scotia. He likes squids, harpoon swordfishers and the internet. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook where he consistently entertains his followers despite his lack of fingers for typing.