British Columbia is appealing to the outdoorsy type because of its forests, mountains, inlets, fjords and warmer weather. However, some wildlife has been in dramatic decline due to habitat loss, overexploitation or simply because they were ‘pests.’ The latter is especially true to the basking shark, which went from commonly being seen in large groups to being rarely seen at all. Today, only an estimated few remain compared to the believed original population of three to five thousand. They are listed as an endangered species in the federal species at-risk list as of now.
Why might a planktivore* be hunted down anyway? Well, back when the fishing industry was expanding in the 1940s and 1950s, basking sharks were frequently getting caught up in, and subsequently ruining, gillnets. A net would be valued at four-hundred dollars, so today that would be about five-thousand dollars in economic loss. Thus, gillnet fishermen were demanding to get rid of the sharks.
The answer came in 1949, when basking sharks were added to the list of pests that needed to be controlled or eradicated. Black bears, seals and kingfishers were also on that list. It was not until 1955 that there was an effective method to kill them though. This method came in the form of a blade positioned on the lower part of the ship’s bow, which proved to be simple, efficient and lethal. Of course, this wasn’t the end of the ordeal.
When the media caught wind of the success of the blade, the press did what they do; dramatise, victimise and condemn. More specifically, they victimised the fishermen and threw the sharks far under the bus, or rather boat. The public ate it up. They actively encouraged the extermination and the public were advised to help by harpooning, shooting or ramming the sharks which eventually led to sport fishing.
The picture shows a 16'6" basking shark harpooned from inboard skiff in Tod Inlet in 1953. Homemade harpoon still in place.
The war on sharks petered out by 1970, leaving the basking shark population utterly ruined. Fifty years later, and pacific populations still haven’t recovered. Researchers are nonetheless hopeful they will make a return.
*A planktivore is an aquatic organism that feeds on planktonic food, including zooplankton and phytoplankton.
- Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of BC's Gentle Giants by Scott Wallace and Brian Gisborne