Researchers measure a porbeagle shark before
releasing it back into the Bay of Fundy.
Weighing pros and
cons of Bay of Fundy shark fishery
ALMA - Stephen
Turnbull lifts a pair of binoculars to his eyes and scans the horizon.
The Bay of Fundy waters are calm with a gentle swell
rocking the 45-foot lobster boat, and Turnbull is looking - praying, even - for
a dorsal fin to pierce the surface.
Turnbull, founder of
the Canadian Shark Conservation Society, and masters' student Joseph Pratt are
researching the elusive porbeagle shark, a close relative to the great white
and the mako.
The porbeagle - which looks uncannily
similar to the great white but only grows up to roughly 10 feet in length - is
known to frequent the frigid Bay of Fundy, but no one really knows why.
The researchers have been canvassing the upper bay
for the past two summers, catching, tagging and releasing por beagles with the
help of some local lobster fishermen who are trying to build a recreational
shark fishing business.
"We're trying to get a better
understanding of the whole biology of the animal here in the upper reaches of
the bay," Turnbull said as the boat, Storm Clouds, left the Alma dock shortly
They ride out some three or four miles before
Captain Eric Lockhart kills the engine. His crew sets to work rigging five
heavy-duty fishing rods and reels to the stern of the boat, setting mackerel on
the hooks.and dropping the lines in the water.
with golf ball-sized holes on the sides and full of frozen, ground bait and
fish oils is dropped in, the contents slowly melting and leaving a slick in the
boat's wake to lure a shark.
On this day, the Canadian
television show The Fishful Thinking Show, is on board to get footage for the
It's the second summer host Charlie Wray has
ventured out on the bay with Sharks Unlimited, the recreational shark fishing
company owned by Lockhart and busiriess partner Emmerson
"The first time I saw one of these fish I was
impressed," said Wray, who's hooked giant sturgeon out west and hammerheads
down south. "I fought a (porbeagle) last year that was close to 500 pounds for
an hour and a half. I was sweating, soaking wet."
exciting catch today would guarantee a slot on the show and give valuable
publicity to Lockhart's fledging enterprise.
hours roll by and not so much as a dorsal fin appears. Waiting is all part of
the game, but Wray and his TV crew were on board the day before and didn't see
a thing then, either.
Tension is rising on the boat when
the tide starts to shift around 9:30 p.m. and suddenly mackerel - the
porbeagle's meal of choice - start biting at smaller rods on board.
The crew catches about 15 mackerel and everyone is
getting excited, thinking a shark could have followed the smaller fish in and
may soon find one of their lines.
But the sharks aren't
Lockhart's vessel pushed off from the Alma dock
at noon under a beaming sun and now, beneath a star-speckled sky and brilliant
Milky Way, they're heading home.
After a day at sea with
no bites, the crew is weary and tired, but sleep on the 90-minute trek home
doesn't come easy, if at all. The moving boat brings a cool wind that nips at
bare skin and a cloudless sky offers no insulation from the late summer night.
And so the crew returned home in the bitter cold, riding
high tide back to the dock. In 12 hours the water will rise again and they'll
head back out, hoping the new cycle will bring better luck: new data for
research, an exhilarating fight with a powerful adversary, signs of a promising
Lockhart and Simpson caught their first
porbeagle in 2006. The lobster fishermen wanted a challenge and found it
They contacted Turnbull - who has studied
sharks for 15 years - for information and soon a relationship was born; the
researchers using the boat and crew to catch the porbeagle and record data, the
fishermen using the data to build a business case for recreational, big-game
fishing in the bay.
"We're just trying to fill in some of
the holes," Pratt, 28, said of his University of New Brunswick Saint John
masters thesis. "We know they come into the bay every year; we don't know in
what numbers (or) what they're doing when they're coming in here."
Since 2008, Pratt has measured and tagged between 40 and
50 porbeagles with the help of the fishermen.
Turnbull said they're not the only vessel fishing for porbeagles in the bay.
"Rumours are that they (other fishermen) are not
releasing them alive; Turnbull said, noting the porbeagle is on the endangered
species list and Canadian law for shark fishing is strictly catch-andrelease.
Simpson has heard the stories as well. "There are a lot
of people coming out (on other vessels) and they'll recreationally catch them
and kill them right on board," Simpson said.
there are not a whole lot of them (porbeagles) here so we have to preserve what
It's especially troubling for Simpson because
he's hoping to carve a nest egg out of this catch-and-release shark fishing
They've spent a lot of money renovating the
boat and applying for government certification as a recreational
And when the sharks are biting, TV host
Wray noted, there's no doubt it could be a profitable venture.
"They weren't sure if it qualified as biggame fishing and
this is more than biggame fishing, it's top-level stuff," Wray said.
But herein lies the dilemma for the researchers.
Stephen Turnbull is a professor at
UNBSJ and is researching the elusive porbeagle shark, a relative to the great
white shark, which frequents the Bay of Fundy each summer.
If the sport
catches on in the bay and more boats start offering the hunt, it's not clear
the porbeagle population - reduced to 10 per cent of its original numbers due
to large-scale commercial fishing-can handle it.
because one boat catches a few sharks doesn't mean everyone should jump on
their boat and head out here fishing for them because the numbers may not be
here," said Turnbull, who lives in Quispamsis.
"It can be
sustainable because it's catchand-release and (Sharks Unlimited) know how to
handle the shark, but a lot of people don't."
lack of action on this day, there's always at least one person leaning on the
rail at the stern, watching for a fin to break the surface, a line to jerk or
the seagulls bobbing in the slick to fly away in panic - what Lockhart calls
the "shark alarms."
Two summers ago - the first year
Pratt was granted a research permit to handle the porbeagle - the fishermen
caught or encountered multiple sharks each day they went out.
Last summer was dismal, though, with a decent number of
encounters but only four sharks landed. This season, which started two weeks
ago, they've sighted about six sharks and landed two, but they were in the
midst of a two-day losing streak.
Given last year's poor
showing and the slow start this summer, Pratt wonders if his first year of
research was an anomaly - that the porbeagle doesn't regularly come this far
into the bay.
It's all the same for the masters student;
no shark sightings or catches is still data for his thesis.
And if the fishing isn't plentiful, Turnbull doesn't have
to worry about a large recreational industry starting up in the bay, possibly
threatening the livelihood of the shark here.
that's the case, it's hard news for the fishermen who've already invested time
and money into this venture and have attracted multiple fishing television
shows and clients from across North America to the bay.
The frustration is visible on the tense faces of Lockhart
and Simpson as the hours count down to the time when they must head back
They hold out as long as the tide permits, but
the big catch doesn't come and midnight draws near, and the fishermen remove
the heavy-duty rods from the stern.
They start back in
the dead of night, toward the promise of another day.