PEI

'They've always been there,' says Maritime great white shark researcher

An ocean tracking researcher at Dalhousie University says great whites sharks are not new to the region.

‘The attraction to the Gulf of St. Lawrence is an overall healthy Gulf of St. Lawrence ecosystem’

Dalhousie researcher Fred Whoriskey credits having sharks in the Maritimes to the overall health of the Gulf of St. Lawrence ecosystem. (Neil Hammerschlag)

An ocean tracking researcher at Dalhousie University says great whites sharks are not new to the region. 

Fred Whoriskey is the executive director of the Ocean Tracking Network at Dalhousie, where the return of the health of the North Atlantic Ocean is their main driver. He said his team has been tracking at least a dozen sharks through the region over the last couple of years.

"The Atlantic Ocean is home to sharks. They've always been there," Whoriskey told Island Morning host Mitch Cormier. 

"If we keep up our conservation measures, they'll always be there."

Last week, a male great white shark researchers call Teazer garnered attention when his location pinged off P.E.I.'s eastern shore twice in one day. 

The shark is being watched by Ocearch, a non-profit research organization that generates tracking data and does biological studies for large predators like great whites.

Another great white shark Ocearch calls Brunswick also pinged off the western shore of the Island this month. As of 4:22 a.m. Monday, Brunswick was pinging off shore from Pigeon Hill in Northern New Brunswick.

Ocearch tags the creatures with receptors on their dorsal fins. Whoriskey says the batteries in those tags last only about a year.

Great white shark caught by David McKendrick of Alberton, P.E.I. in 1983. It was 5.2 metres long and believed to be one of the largest sharks ever measured in the world. (Canadian Shark Research Laboratory)

"We use some of that but a lot of our equipment is actually moored in the ocean. It's what's called an acoustic receiver and we use acoustic tags. There's no one technology that's really good for these animals," he said. 

"Our interest in things like the white sharks … a very long-lived animal ... is how the behaviour changes over time. How the behaviour evolves as it moves from a juvenile to a sub-adult to adult and what that tells you about the ecology of the animal."

Whoriskey said the tags they use usually last about 10 years. 

As for whether white sharks are increasing in numbers in the Maritimes or whether we are just getting better at finding them, he said no one knows for sure. 

"We know that these sharks massively decreased in their population sizes. It was probably accidental and deliberate fishing that was taking them out, and also reductions in the food supplies as we depleted the oceans of the things the sharks eat," said Whoriskey.

"The sharks are just following food supplies and coming in. We've also had a resurgence in seal populations, and for the bigger sharks that is a very interesting prey."

He said the sharks are chasing fish like tuna, herring and mackerel. 

"I guess the attraction to the Gulf of St. Lawrence is an overall healthy Gulf of St. Lawrence ecosystem.

"The gulf is a magnificent feeding area."

No need to panic

As far as he knows, Whoriskey said the last fatal shark attack in the region was in the 1840s.

"This year is no different from last year or the year before that," he said. "If you want to jump off the back of the boat and cool off in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, I personally would be going ahead and doing that."

Whoriskey said shark attacks are often tied to a particular set of circumstances — "if you're out there, you're swimming alone, you're far offshore, it's dawn or it's dusk and there happened to be seals around … almost trolling yourself as a bait through the water for the animals," he said.  

"And still, it doesn't happen that often."

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Island Morning

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