Slaughter of sharks provokes Canadian researchers to question U.S. rules

Canadian scientists on the Bay of Fundy are seething over a spate of recent photos of sharks killed in the bay by U.S. fishermen.

Sharks are killed a 'stone's throw' from protected waters off East Coast

A photo of a landed porbeagle shark was posted to Facebook on July 25 from Eastport, Maine. The species is legal to fish in the United States but considered endangered in Canadian waters. (Facebook)

Canadian scientists on the Bay of Fundy are seething over a spate of recent photos of sharks killed in the bay by U.S. fishermen.

Especially upsetting have been social media posts showing a large porbeagle shark that was landed in Eastport, Maine.

Porbeagles are protected on the Canadian side of the border, but not in the U.S., which does not consider the species in any danger of extinction.

We are seeing dead shark on social media, unfortunately, a lot lately. And this one happened really close to home." - Nicole  Leavitt-Kennedy , marine biologist

"The shark is protected for one minute, then in a heartbeat it's no longer protected," said Steven Turnbull, a marine biologist specializing in shark research at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.  

"It's sad when you see an animal like that killed, especially when it's catch-and-release only in Canadian waters. And when you see that happening a stone's throw away from that imaginary line in the water, it's disheartening." 

The photos and video out of Eastport show a porbeagle shark, bloodied and battered in the back of a pickup truck with entrails pouring out of its mouth.  

CBC News made attempts to contact the man who posted the pictures of the shark but did not receive a reply.  

U.S. allows killing of porbeagles

Marine biologist and shark researcher Steven Turnbull says he's not happy sharks that are considered endangered and protected in Canadian waters are being killed legally a 'stone's throw away' across the border. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Although there have been petitions in the U.S. to change the porbeagle's status to endangered, fishing or killing the sharks is not illegal in U.S. waters as long as the fishermen have permits. 

A porbeagle looks like a miniature version of a great white shark. Feeding mostly on fish, porbeagle sharks don't prey on marine mammals such as seals or porpoises the way its more infamous relative does. 

Porbeagles are about seven to eight feet long and about 250 pounds on average, but they can grow to 450 pounds.

Researchers on New Brunswick's south coast have been working for a decade to study and track porbeagle sharks  through a catch-and-release partnership program with a Saint Andrews sport fishing company that has successfully tagged about 80 of the sharks.

Close to home

Nicole Leavitt-Kennedy, the senior biologist for St. Andrews Sport Fishing, says images of sharks killed in U.S. waters appear to be increasing on social media. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"We are seeing dead shark on social media, unfortunately, a lot lately," said Nicole Leavitt-Kennedy, the senior biologist for St. Andrews Sport Fishing. "And this one happened really close to home." 

"In a different country, yes, but just metres from the border, unfortunately." 

"Eastport is the home to a wonderful population of folks who are passionate about fishing, as well as whale watching," Leavitt-Kennedy said. "But unfortunately, American regulations are a little bit different than Canadian, and they are able to kill sharks there."

Although Canada considers the sharks endangered, the U.S. takes a different view of their numbers.

Jennifer Goebel, a spokesperson for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said a petition was launched in 2015 to have the sharks deemed endangered. 

As a result, a 12-month study was launched to investigate the porbeagle's status as a possible species at risk.

Finds no grounds for protection

In August, 2016, NOAA published its conclusions about what it said were two distinct populations of porbeagle sharks, one in the North Atlantic and the other in the Southern Hemisphere.

"We conclude that neither is currently in danger of extinction throughout all, or a significant portion of, its range or likely to become so in the foreseeable future," NOAA said.

"We also conclude that the species itself is not currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range or likely to become so in the foreseeable future." 

Turnbull said the population of porbeagle sharks in Canadian waters has plummeted since the 1960s to about 10 per cent of the original stock. 

"And they've been really slow coming back," he said. "There was a commercial fishery for them in Canadian waters, and they put a moratorium on that for now.,

"But they fished in other places."

About the Author

Shane Fowler

Reporter

Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.