Creature feature: Basking sharks

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Creature feature: Basking sharks

There was a lot of excitement this past June when a science vessel spotted a basking shark on British Columbia’s Central Coast. Growing up to 10 metres in length and weighing as much as 4 tons, the basking shark is the second-largest fish in the world. So-named because they appear to be basking in the sun when filter feeding on zooplankton near the surface, these large-mouthed, otherworldly giants are one of the most elusive marine residents in British Columbia. But this wasn’t always the case.

According to Outer Shores Expedition Specialist Dr. Scott Wallace, basking sharks once numbered in the thousands in BC. “They were common, a creature you would expect to see on a regular basis,” he says.

Scott’s a senior research scientist at the David Suzuki Foundation, and in addition to his other research endeavours, he’s also something of an expert on BC’s basking sharks and the tragic history of these fish in our waters.

For our local basking shark populations, things took a turn for the worse in the 1950s, when the federal government designated these slow-moving fish as “destructive pests” because of the costly damage they caused to gill nets. Their fate was then sealed with the invention of an enormous, shark-killing blade that was mounted on the bow of fishery patrol vessels. “They were wiped out overnight with relatively unsophisticated human engineering,” says Scott.

In Canada, basking sharks are classified as an endangered species and have been given protection. However, recovery for these long-lived and slowly maturing fish has not happened yet. Today, confirmed sightings in BC happen just once or twice a year. Even so, Scott remains hopeful about their long-term chances for recovery. “The tide is turning,” he says. “There isn’t a fishery for them and they’re becoming more revered and celebrated, like whales.”

While Scott is always on the lookout for them whenever he’s on the water, he has yet to see a basking shark in BC for himself. So count yourself very lucky if you suddenly find yourself witnessing a large, zig-zagging dorsal fin on the surface of the ocean.

If you’d like to know more about this remarkable creature and its poignant history in BC, check out the book Scott Wallace co-authored with Brian Gisborne, Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of BC’s Gentle Giants.


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