I'm no Navy Seal type. Confronted by a twenty foot White Shark, I'd probably die of fear. The shark would be able to dine without the inconvenience of having his dinner thrashing around screaming. I'm no hero, but none the less, sharks don't frighten me. And there's a perfectly good reason.
All photos courtesy of Robert Osborne.
I recently came back from a diving trip to the south coast of Cuba. I was staying outside the small town of Pilon and was assured that I was in for a real treat when it came to an abundance of sea life. The reefs were healthy, I was told, the cigars cheap and the rum drinks delicious. What more could I ask for? And yet as the week progressed, though I did see a lot of coral in good shape and an abundance of smaller fish life, it dawned on me that I hadn't seen a single shark -- something that used to happen on a regular basis when I was diving.
In fact, one evening as I sat watching the sunset indulging in cigars and rum I started to think about the last time I'd seen a shark in the Caribbean. I've done plenty of diving there during the last few years -- Bonaire, Roatan, Dominica, Cayman Islands, Mexico, the Bahamas and of course Cuba. Yet to my horror, I realized that the last time I had seen a shark was nearly eight years ago. Now I realize that sometimes when you're underwater, you can look one way and see nothing while a massive hammerhead swims by a few few away. But my complete lack of shark sightings did trigger my curiosity. So when I back to Toronto, I started making some calls.
My first call was to noted marine biologist, Dr. Chris Harvey Clark of Delhousie University. Though his areas of expertise are pretty broad, one of his particular interests is sharks. So I put the question to him. Is it only me, or have sharks disappeared from the Caribbean. His response was a little disconcerting. "Other than a few pockets of populations around the Caribbean, it's pretty much played out." The problem, he explains, is that people in that region need protein. Sharks, for all their ferocity, are pretty much large chunks of protein that are easy to catch. The bottom line, people have fished out most of the shark populations in that part of the world.
Clark continued by saying that sharks are not just disappearing down south. "When I was kid, we used to dive off the wharf at Painter's Lodge in Campbell River and there would be hundreds of Spiny Dog Fish (a small species of shark.) The last time I went diving there we saw about a dozen." This he explains may be partly due to a fishery off the Pacific coast of Canada. Without really having any recent studies on what the dog fish population was, Canada's Department of Fisheries (DFO) allowed a catch that took nearly 25,000 tons of dogfish between 1998 and 2007. The result according to Clark, "salmon fishermen used to complain about how many dog fish would get caught up in their nets, now they don't have that problem anymore." Even DFO in their on line publications acknowledge they now have "concerns that the population is in decline" and that certain fishing practices have "the potential to deplete the dogfish stocks."
Other shark populations are also taking a beating in Canadian waters. The Porbeagle Shark (a small cousin of the white shark) was heavily fished for about fifteen years off the east coast. DFO didn't have an accurate assessment of how many of the sharks existed for part of that time and ignored a suggestion that the species should be designated as "endangered." The result, in 2013 DFO was forced to close down the fishery to "allow the population to recover from its current low level." We also fish Blue and Mako Sharks though a real study on their populations hasn't been done in years. Clark says DFO allowed the same overfishing of the Six Gill and Basking Sharks. The Basking Shark is now considered to be critically endangered.
I spoke with a spokesperson from DFO (can't use names, they fire scientists who speak out) and oddly they agreed that way too much fishing had happened before they had a good handle on the shark population. They did point out, however, that "we've done relatively well compared to many around the world."
That may be true, but the bar isn't very high. Driven by the taste for shark fin soup, long line fisherman around the world are eliminating some 100 million sharks per year -- a reduction, in some cases of 90 per cent of the species. Sharks, being apex predators, breed very slowly. The inevitable result of all that fishing is a complete extinction of many shark species within the next ten years according to Sharkwater.com.
So now you understand why sharks don't frighten me? Because the bottom line is that the chances of seeing one, let alone being attacked by one, is so remote that I'm better off spending my time worrying about being eaten by a Saber-toothed Tiger or possibly trampled to death by a flock of Dodo birds.
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