Researchers measure a porbeagle shark before releasing it back into the Bay of Fundy.

Weighing pros and cons of Bay of Fundy shark fishery

Aug 17/10

    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 afternoon.
   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.
   A bucket 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 program.
   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 Simpson.
   "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."
   An exciting catch today would guarantee a slot on the show and give valuable publicity to Lockhart's fledging enterprise.
   But the 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 biting.
   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 new enterprise.
   Lockhart and Simpson caught their first porbeagle in 2006. The lobster fishermen wanted a challenge and found it exhilarating.
   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.
   But 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.
   "We know there are not a whole lot of them (porbeagles) here so we have to preserve what we have."
   It's especially troubling for Simpson because he's hoping to carve a nest egg out of this catch-and-release shark fishing enterprise.
   They've spent a lot of money renovating the boat and applying for government certification as a recreational fishingbusiness.
   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.
   "Just 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."
   Despite the 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.
   But if 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 ashore.
   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.