Nova Scotia

U.S. shark researchers face stricter conditions to enter Canadian waters

U.S. shark researchers will face new restrictions when they return to Nova Scotia this fall to tag great white sharks, including a condition that prohibits the use of chum within 5.5 kilometres of land.

'I think that DFO has made a really strong effort to respond to the concerns,' says Dalhousie scientist

A 600-kilogram great white shark named Hilton that was tagged by the research group Ocearch has been a frequent visitor to Canada's East Coast. (Robert Snow/Ocearch/Canadian Press)

U.S. shark researchers will face new restrictions when they return to Nova Scotia this fall to tag great white sharks, including a condition that prohibits the use of chum within 5.5 kilometres of land.

The limit on the use of fish, blood, guts and flesh to attract the sharks is one of several conditions on Florida-based Ocearch for its cruise off Cape Breton and Lunenburg, which will take place from Sept. 13 to Oct. 4.

Ocearch produces the popular shark tracker website that allows the public to follow the movement of sharks tagged with satellite transmitters. It also names the sharks it tags and gives them Twitter accounts.

CBC News has obtained the conditions mandated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans:

  • No chumming or deploying seal-shaped decoys within 5.5 kilometres of land.
  • Have a fully operational automatic identification system (AIS) on the vessel.
  • Provide public notice of where and when tagging takes place.
  • If requested, DFO representatives can be aboard the ship on any trip.

All but the requirement for DFO personnel are new in 2019.

There was no restriction on chumming when Ocearch ventured into Canadian waters for the first time in September 2018 and started catching and tagging great white sharks off Lunenburg.

Aaron MacNeil, the Canada Research Chair in fish ecology at Dalhousie University, welcomes the conditions associated with Ocearch's 2019 voyage, but he doesn't think they go far enough. (CBC)

The ship's automatic identification system — which reveals vessel location — was not working.

DFO imposed a chum-exclusion zone in the midst of the 2018 expedition after complaints in Lunenburg County, where Ocearch captured seven great white sharks.

The organization said the restriction didn't impact its tagging because the sharks were so abundant.

Aaron MacNeil, a Dalhousie University scientist who is also the Canada Research Chair in fish ecology, welcomes the 2019 conditions.

"It's positive. I think that DFO has made a really strong effort to respond to the concerns raised by recreational users, particularly on the South Shore," he said.

Ocearch says Nova the Shark was tagged off the southern coast of Nova Scotia in 2018. (Ocearch/Twitter)

But he said Ocearch shouldn't be allowed to fish for sharks anywhere near people in the water.

"You have the potential to draw those animals in towards people," said MacNeil, who is also a surfer. "You have the potential to change their behaviour where they're more in a feeding mode than in a cruising mode.

"You know all of these things are very remote possibilities, but the fact is scientific best practices for working with and tagging [great] white sharks are you should not be fishing anywhere near where people are surfing or diving or swimming."

'We're not drawing sharks in'

Ocearch science director Robert Hueter disagrees.

"We're not changing any of the dynamics of the sharks being there," he said in an interview from Washington.

"The more important safety question is should those people be swimming in those areas where the sharks are, especially surfers that, you know, are essentially mimicking the look of seals, which is why the sharks are there. They're there to feed on seals, as well as some other fish.

"I mean we're not chumming. We're not drawing sharks in. The only fishing that we're doing is targeted fishing for what's already there. I would argue that we are increasing, enhancing public safety by pulling back the curtain and showing people what they have in the area."

DFO confirms conditions

In a response to CBC News, Fisheries and Oceans said it is aware the concerns that have been raised by some stakeholders.

"DFO does not anticipate that white sharks — which are normally in the waters off Nova Scotia at this time of year — will change their behaviour as a result of any activity that occurs as part of this research," spokesperson Alexandra McNab said in an email.

There are many more conditions than just the four identified as of interest to local stakeholders.

They are listed in the Foreign Fishing Vessel Licence issued to Ocearch,

Those have not yet been disclosed, by the department.

Scientific value debated

Ocearch's first expedition to Canada triggered a lengthy internal debate within DFO over its scientific merits.

DFO's Maritime region science director, Alain Vézina, initially refused to approve the cruise on the grounds that the "research activity will not contribute to the Canadian scientific community."

Vézina eventually signed off after adding conditions in 2018 requiring data sharing for the expedition.

He said the permitting process was smoother for 2019 because DFO and Ocearch sat down beforehand to work out expectations.

Size restrictions

Last year, tagged sharks had to measure at least 3½ metres in length.

The size was based on DFO concerns that immature white sharks are vulnerable to permanent damage when holes are drilled through the dorsal fin to bolt on the satellite transmitters.

Ocearch argued the limit was arbitrary and smaller sharks are mature enough to handle the tags.

Hueter said this year DFO will allow the installation of larger satellite tags that fall off after five years on three male and three female great white sharks.

Robert Hueter, Ocearch's science director, says DFO is acting with an 'overabundance of caution' with its size restrictions. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alison Auld)

While males will have a 3½-metre minimum size, it will be four metres for females.

Beyond that, DFO is allowing Ocearch to bolt on smaller transmitters with hardware that will last one year.

Hueter said DFO is acting with an "overabundance of caution" that will come with a downside.

"We're going to lose out on some information about some of these smaller animals that are using Canadian waters," he said.

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