The hunt is officially underway for B.C.’s biggest, gentlest, most elusive marine creature.
Decades after Ottawa sought to eradicate basking sharks from B.C. waters, federal fisheries researchers are now fighting for the recovery of the species – assuming they can find any at all.
Researchers launched the program last September, flying a total of 10 hours in a chartered aircraft in the Barkley Sound/Clayoquot Sound area, as well as Rivers Inlet. The put in another six hours in May, and plan another 10 hours in September. So far, they’ve seen plenty of whales, but no basking sharks in the areas.
“They’re absolutely incredible beasts,” Sandy McFarlane, a senior researcher with the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C., said in an interview Wednesday. “I’d love to see one. It would make my day, make my year.”
Basking sharks, so named because they spend much of their time on the ocean surface, can grow up to 12 metres long and are the second-largest fish in the ocean after the whale shark.
The temperate-water species is considered endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Ottawa is assessing the animal as a recovery candidate under the federal Species At Risk Act.
Thousands of gape-mouthed plankton-eating basking sharks are thought to have once lived in B.C. waters, migrating as far south as California.
Today the creature is so rare McFarlane knows of only six confirmed sightings in the last 12 years, based on photos or carcasses of the animals. The latest reported sighting – considered reliable, but not confirmed – came from a marine pilot in May working in the southern Strait of Georgia.
Basking sharks went into serious decline as a result of directed fisheries for liver oil between 1941 and 1947 and a federal eradication program from 1945 to 1970, COSEWIC reports.
The program included Ottawa’s deliberate ramming of the sharks with blade-equipped boats, a response to the big fish posing a nuisance to the gear of the commercial salmon fleet. Commercial boats also rammed the sharks.
“They don’t even get out of the way,” explained McFarlane, who is leading the study with research colleague Jackie King. “They’re just lazing on the surface – and boom.”
If the shark is found to still live in B.C. waters, recovery plans would focus on finding ways to minimize human contact with the creatures.
“There’s nothing magical about what happened to them,” McFarlane said. “They were brought to their knees by people, and hopefully people can bring them back, too.”