A decade after it was declared an endangered species, a group of Canadian scientists says the porbeagle shark remains at risk.
This comes after a re-examination of the species sometimes called “Canada's shark” because it spends most of its life swimming in Canadian waters.
Recent estimates from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans put the population at about a quarter of what it was in 1960s — before overfishing devastated stocks.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) re-examined the porbeagle’s endangered status last week in Halifax — and this week re-confirmed it.
“To be reassessed after ten years shows there has been very little progress in the rebuilding of this very vulnerable species,” said Katie Schliet, with the Ecology Action Centre.
Globally, shark populations are on the decline. According to COSEWIC, the porbeagle’s low fertility rates and late maturity make it “extremely vulnerable” to overfishing and capture as bycatch.
Direct fishing for porbeagles was stopped in Canada in 2013. But according to the committee, there’s still a bycatch of unknown magnitude in Canadian waters and there's no way to know how many are being taken in international waters.
However, top Canadian shark researcher Steven Campana, a senior scientist at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, said there's cause for hope.
“It’s recovering now, slowly. It’s going to take time but it is recovering,” he said.
Campana has spent years studying porbeagle sharks. He said, in recent years, fishermen are catching and mostly releasing more porbeagle as a bycatch.
“They’re catching far larger numbers than they ever did before. This applies — not just in Nova Scotia — but also up in Newfoundland, for instance. So, certainly, everything that I'm getting is suggesting that there is quite a few of them out there,” he said.
Campana estimates the North Atlantic population at 300,000 — most of those are in Canadian waters. Those numbers may seem high, but Campana urges caution.
“You know, that’s a lower number than we would like — let’s make no mistake. Even though I’ve got some optimism for the population, it should still be, probably, twice as high,” he said.
The fierce-looking shark is sometimes confused with its larger relative, the great white shark, due to its similar body profile.
However, swimmers need not worry. Although porbeagles are found in waters surrounding Atlantic Canada, they eat primarily fish and squid.
Environmentalists say more needs to be done, including an outright ban on landing any porbeagles ashore.
DFO said it will continue to monitor the porbeagle but bigger species, like the basking shark, are at even a greater risk.