community 25 km south of Halifax — licensed to hunt porbeagle. The porbeagle
meat they pull in winds up in Italy; the fins go to Southeast Asia for
controversial shark-fin soup.
But Gray has watched the commercial market for porbeagle meat and fins dry up
in the last few years, following the 2007 documentary and as reports on low
shark populations from environmental agencies pile up. The ocean’s ugly
predators have become unlikely poster children for endangered animal
campaigners, alongside fuzzy giant pandas.
“This world is turning green and we’re the last of the killers, I guess,”
Gray says by telephone.
For now at least, he has Ottawa’s backing. At a meeting of the International
Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) in Istanbul, Turkey
earlier this month, Canada was the only nation among 48 to defend porbeagle
fishing and oppose a ban, says Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre.
Canada’s defence of such a small, isolated practice baffles Shannon Arnold,
the centre’s marine coordinator. The ban on fishing “could reduce the time (to
restore the population) by half a century,” she said
But the head of Canada’s delegation at the ICCAT meeting, Faith Scattolon,
says they are protecting the options of Canadian fishermen.
“For a particular community in Nova Scotia, in Sambro . . . this is an
important part of their fishing enterprise,” said Scattolon. “It gives them a
sweep of fishing opportunities that from year to year may adjust depending on
market conditions and price.”
For these fishermen, the shark was once their livelihood. Now they are
fishing lobster, halibut and cod to get by.
The fishermen are quick to point out they don’t “fin” porbeagles. The
practice of slicing off the pricey fins then tossing the shark back in the water
to drown is one of the reasons most shark populations are now at risk. It’s
illegal in Canada and is the subject of worldwide outrage — even triggering bans
on the sale of shark fins in Toronto and Brantford, where there is hardly a
shark fin to be found.
The porbeagle population in the northwest Atlantic was decimated by decades
of commercial long-line fishing led by Norway in the 1960s. In the 1990s Canada
joined in, hauling in 1,500 tonnes of the shark a year.
Canada’s quotas have since been slashed to allow the shark population to
rebuild. The fishermen are permitted to catch 185 tonnes of porbeagle a year,
but Fisheries and Oceans Canada say they have actually only been bringing in 70
tonnes in recent years.
That’s because prices have plummeted with the “black eye” on porbeagles, as
conservationists push to have the shark listed under Canada’s Species at Risk
Act (SARA), Gray says.
The porbeagle is sometimes dubbed the “Canadian shark” because the population
in the northwest Atlantic largely remains in Canadian waters, says Dr. Steven
Campana, of the government’s Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia.
His research shows the population is increasing — it’s now about 250,000, though
that is still a fraction of the pre-1960s population.
The northeast Atlantic population, fished by the European Union, is in a far
worse state, he said.
In October, the EU announced a total ban on porbeagle fishing — mandating
that all porbeagle caught accidentally have to be released. The EU had hoped
this ban could extend to all ICAAT member nations.
Oceana, a marine conservation group, and the Ecology Action Centre have
applauded the EU. “They took a strong conservation stance; they could have just
reduced the fishing quota,” said Arnold.
Donny Hart, one of the managers of the directed porbeagle fishery, says next
year’s porbeagle season, starting in April, could be better for the frustrated
fishermen because they have managed to line up some new Asian buyers.
Patrick Gray is less optimistic. Once tainted, the waters may stay that
“But it’s a sin that all these porbeagles are there and we can’t sell them,”
Population: 250,000 in Canadian waters
Like humans they reach sexual maturity at about 13 years and have a nine
month gestation period
They average two metres in length and weigh about 90 kg
They are cousins of the Great White Shark and the mako shark
They aren’t known to attack humans, and they live in waters at temperatures
between 5 and 12 deg C.
They have to keep moving at all times, or they drown