Author Tags: Environment
Of the 1,165 shark-like fishes of the world, only three have been described as “supersharks” by one of the world’s foremost shark experts, Leonard Compagno, author of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Sharks of the World. These are the white shark, the whale shark and the basking shark.
Described in 1952 as “the length of a London bus,” basking sharks have been hunted almost to extinction in B.C. waters because they were longed deemed a nuisance to the commercial fishing industry, mainly by getting entangled in nets.
Scott Wallace, a Sustainable Fisheries Analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation, and West Coast mariner Brian Gisborne have written the first history of basking sharks on the West Coast, starting from their possible sighting by a member of Robert Gray’s crew on the Columbia, off Estevan Point, in 1791, in Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of B.C.’s Gentle Giants (New Star).
Unlike its razor-toothed relatives, the seldom-studied basking shark has remained an enigma to most marine biologists. Long-time Tofino resident Jim Darling and an assistant managed to identify 27 individuals in Clayoquot Sound in 1992 but the basking sharks have long since disappeared from those waters, as of 1994. Basking sharks were also formerly prevalent in Queen Charlotte Sound and Barkley Sound.
As one of only four species of the world’s large, filter-feeding “elasmobranches,” the million-plus-year-old basking shark maintained its girth as by feeding on plankton. Nonetheless the second largest fish in the world has long been irrationally feared and condemned, variously described by B.C. newspapers as “grotesquely huge,” “monster of the deep,” “menace,” “lazy, good-natured slob,” “sleeping giant,” “salmon killing monster,” and “curse of fishermen.”
Wallace and Gisborne have compiled an appendix listing of media reports of basking sharks from 1905 to the present, with an emphasis on British Columbia and Washington State.
As suggested by P.H. LeBlond and E.L. Bousfield in their book Cadborosaurus: Survivor from the Deep, it’s likely that many of the 181 documented sightings of the West Coast “sea monster” known as Caddy, or Cadborosaurus, between 1881 and 1991, were likely glimpses of basking sharks.
The Department of Fisheries used cutting blades on their patrol boats in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly the Comox Post, to greatly reduce the population of basking sharks. The lethal blade from the Comox Post can be seen at the Alberni Valley Museum as one of the public reminders of the placid creatures who have been vilified almost out of existence.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of BC's Gentle Giants
Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of BC’s Gentle Giants (New Star, 2006). 1-55420-022-9
[BCBW 2006] "Environment"