A Recent Halifax newspaper headline reads, “Great white sharks are killing people and they’re coming to Nova Scotia”. Funny, I’ve often been told Nova Scotia is about as “Sharky” as the Great Lakes. A recent expedition with the U.S non-profit Ocearch proves this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Over the course of the last few years, more and more sharks seem to be spotted in Atlantic Canadian waters. From cellphone videos of close encounters to hearsay from fishermen, the evidence seems to be pointing to a very obvious rise in the white shark population in the North Atlantic. Ocearch, themselves, cite that over the past few years, trends are emerging in the migratory patterns of the tagged white sharks. Lydia, Hilton, and George seem to like the Maritimes, but why?
I joined the Ocearch team for a day as they attempted to tag and study adult Great White sharks off the coast of south western Nova Scotia. I believe it’s important to look at the science behind these recent sightings and encounters.
Dr. Robert Hueter is the chief science advisor for Ocearch’s N.S. expedition and is a senior scientist and Director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. Dr. Hueter has more than 40 years experience in the field of marine biology and the study of sharks. Dr. Hueter believes that since the 1960’s, the population of North Atlantic white sharks has indeed risen. This is most likely due to the drop in fishing pressure and an increase in regulations protecting both the sharks and marine mammals (seals). In short, there’s more food around to support a larger shark population. We shouldn’t be surprised by this fact. Similar patterns arise when rabbit or deer populations spike. Apex predators like coyotes, wolves, and bears move into an area when the rabbit/deer population increases. This is known as population dynamics.
Global climate change is also having an effect on the range of these large sharks. There is a lot of data being collected that clearly illustrates sea temperatures are on the rise, and as a result, the white sharks are venturing further north. Even though the jury might still be out, there seems to be some data that supports the idea that our Maritime waters might be a breeding ground for Great Whites. Not the best news for a surfer.
Breeding grounds are better than feeding grounds, in my mind. I’ve also heard this “fact” used to calm the nerve of many an ocean-goer. The idea that if the sharks are here to breed, they must not be feeding? Seems logical? Most people don’t make love with a burger in their hand. Unfortunately for us east coast surfers, this isn’t the case. The Ocearch team has spotted ten sharks and tagged six white sharks, all in the eleven to fifteen-foot range. Just about every shark the team encountered was very well fed. Quite often the girth of the shark was equal to its length. That’s right, the sharks were as big around as they were long.
It seems in recent days the Ocearch team has endured a fair amount of criticism surrounding their Nova Scotia expedition. The criticism ranges in scope from “candy-coated science” to their methods of fishing, more specifically “chumming”. There seem to be quite a few negative comments and threads online from N.S surfers and non-surfers alike. People are concerned that the expedition and their practices of “chumming” to bring the sharks closer to the baited hooks are in turn bringing the sharks closer to popular beaches and points.
It’s important to understand a few key facts before jumping head first into the “sharky” waters of the social media anti- Ocearch frenzy. First, the main research vessel moored close to shore is not the main fishing boat. The Ocearch team uses a much smaller, faster, center-console Contender fishing boat for baiting and hooking the sharks. Quite often the Contender is located around a kilometer away from the much bigger Ocearch vessel. The sharks are hooked and slowly led over to the main vessel where they are positioned on a custom swim platform, enabling fifteen scientific studies to be conducted.
Second, anyone who has ever grown up on the ocean knows that these animals have always been here. Fishermen have been documenting sightings and encounters for decades. The times have obviously changed and we’ve plunged into the digital world. Now everyone is armed with a smartphone capable of instantly recording high-quality images and video of these sightings and encounters. More importantly, any fishing boat or commercial fishing operation, either internationally or unintentionally, puts “chum” into the water. Has anyone ever witnessed a commercial mackerel boat returning to the harbor? It looks like the stage for the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Some tuna fishermen, using similar methods to Ocearch, intentionally add “chum” to the water to attract tuna to their baited hooks. “Chumming” isn’t a new or unique practice. It’s been used since the inception of fishing.
When it comes to the arguments surrounding the Ocearch team fishing too close to popular beaches and surf breaks, I urge you to consider this. Maybe these popular beaches and breaks are popular not only to humans?. The currents and bathymetry in this specific area of question is ideal shark habitat. The ocean goes from extremely deep to extremely shallow. The area is also known amongst locals as one of the best mackerel fishing grounds on the South Shore. Ultimately, where there are vast quantities of mackerel, you will find large populations of seals. Returning to a point already discussed above, large populations of prey animals lends itself to larger populations of apex predators. I know this might come as a surprise to some, but maybe these popular beaches and breaks are not as safe as we once thought?
So what can we take away from the Ocearch expedition? How can we use their science to make ourselves safer while enjoying the ocean?
Dr. Heuter provides some insight into white shark behavior. Studies show that sharks do seem to display consistent feeding patterns. They’re most active around dusk and dawn. That’s no surprise; we’ve all been warned about that before as surfers. What is surprising is that water temperature seems to play a big role. Water temperature around 63 degrees seems to ring the dinner bell for whites. Colder waters, 55 degrees and below seems to drop the sharks’ appetite. On the other hand, warm temps also seem to turn the sharks off. Big whites also seem to be quite intelligent. There are instances where the sharks have learned to avoid fishing gear. The Ocearch team described encountering a large white shark 225 kilometres offshore, where longlining for swordfish is a common practice. The team observed as the shark investigated the bait, before rejecting it and swimming off. What shark turns down a free meal? A shark that’s probably had more that one encounter with a fishhook. These animals are incredibly intelligent, extremely capable hunters. Their purpose is to cull the sick, dying, and weak, keeping prey populations in check.
There are only two fatal shark “attacks” in Canadian waters. The first dates back to August 30th, 1891. A man by the name of John Roult was “knocked overboard” by a shark and drowned near Halifax. John D. Burns and John MacLeod were attacked in a 14-foot dory while lobster fishing off Fourchu on Cape Breton Island. The attack occurred on July 9th, 1953. Unfortunately, Burns drowned as a result of the attack. It was speculated that the attack came from a Great White shark as tooth fragments were recovered from the gunwale of the dory.
Research is important to understand the migratory and behavioral patterns of these animals. It is well understood that you don’t keep food in your tent when camping in bear country, to make noise and wear bear bells. We also now know that certain areas are more dangerous at specific times of the year. We know all this because of scientific inquiry. The same is true for sharks. Science requires data. Sometimes the collection of data makes some uncomfortable. Ocearch has been clear from Day 1 that they’re here to tag sharks. Instead, of being upset about where these animals are being caught and tagged, maybe we should be paying closer attention and adjusting our habits.
Moving forward, I now know that there is a “healthy” white shark population in Nova Scotia. Ocean temperatures play a role in white shark feeding activity. “Playing it safe” might mean steering clear of these active areas or waves until the winter months. Use common sense, avoid surfing at dusk and dawn during the summer and fall when the sharks are in town. Pay attention to the presence and behavior of seals. If there are a lot of seals around you can be almost certain there will also be sharks. If you observe seals acting spooked, agitated, and or scrambling to shore, it’s probably for good reason. Fear often drives anger, let’s at least consider the fact that Ocearch might be on to something. Although their target species is an apex predator, their fishing methods are on par with a lot of other commercial and recreational activities already. I for one will use the information in this article while making decisions pertaining to entering the ocean. I will continue to look forward to the data Ocearch provides to the scientific community, so we can keep both sharks and humans safe.
Words – Scotty Sherin
Images – Rob Snow / Ocearch
For more information www.ocearch.org