A series of photos and video of dead sharks posted on social media and subsequently obtained by CBC has sparked an investigation by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The photos showed several dead porbeagles, a basking shark and a harbour porpoise, allegedly caught in Bradford's Cove weir on the southwest side of Grand Manan. While the dates of the photos range from recent to two years ago, the CBC report on July 24 states that they were removed within minutes of being obtained, and an investigation began that week amid media allegations of poaching and shark finning.
Weir fishermen are allowed only a small bycatch of mackerel. Other species are illegal, and while sharks are permitted to be on boats for the purpose of removing them from the weir, they are not allowed to be landed. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) designated porbeagles as endangered in 2004; the Species At Risk Act (SARA) acknowledges this, but the New Brunswick Species At Risk Public Registry states that "the recommendation to list under the federal Species at Risk Act resulted in the decision not to list." Documents linked on the federal SARA website date from 2004B2006 and porbeagles have "no schedule" and "no status." The SARA registry details a sharp decline in porbeagle numbers since commercial fishing began in 1961 and suggests a 90% decline in biomass and spawning females. It states that porbeagles are "protected by the Oceans Act and by the Fisheries Act under the terms of the Atlantic Fishery Regulations, 1985," but also notes that "Fisheries and Oceans Canada is supposed to reassess the porbeagle shark in 2006."
Harbour porpoises are listed by SARA as threatened under Schedule 2 -- "not yet officially protected" -- as of 2009. Basking sharks are listed by COSEWIC as of "special concern" but also have no SARA status.
Grand Manan Fishermen's Association (GMFA) Project Manager Melanie Sonnenberg acknowledges that with the various designations there is some confusion about the status of porbeagles even among scientists. Association President Brian Guptill says that since local gillnetters used to sell porbeagles as bycatch, some fishermen may not realize they are endangered, and that sharks are harder to remove from weirs than harbour porpoises, and require more delicate handling.
Fishermen "are not the monstrocious killers everyone's portraying," Guptill says. "They're not in the business to annihilate species; we want [a future fishery] for our children." He adds that as far as he knows this is the only weir to have caught sharks recently, and he thinks that, in the past when water temperatures were cooler, weir bycatch was not an issue. He wonders if, with warming waters, the sharks' migration patterns may have changed. He says fishermen are willing to work with groups "to not kill anything endangered" and cites successful releases of harbour porpoises and right whales.
Laurie Murison of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station (GMWSRS) says that for animals larger than porpoises, the station can provide assistance and information, but releases are largely up to the fishermen. "The compromise is making sure fishermen don't lose fish but [bycatch] get out alive. We want to work cooperatively with fishermen and help them benefit from any new technologies ... and to benefit from their knowledge as well."
With funding from a federal program, the station is working with the GMFA to develop a habitat stewardship and education program to discuss bycatch handling techniques. It was initiated last year and will include a manual on such situations; Murison says they may also get a large‑mesh seine, of appropriate size for a weir. They do have a harbour porpoise release program.
Sonnenberg agrees with the need for education. Of the photos, she says, "For us as an organization this is more than disappointing. How many ways can we say we don't condone it? It casts a pall over us, as people hear about it." She says the education program looks like they are "being reactive," but it was already under way and is now even more timely. "We've had a meeting with key weir people and started dialogue with the GMWSRS." They have already had a page in their newsletter and produced a card on shark identification. "We put it out there, to be alert [for sharks]. Fishermen like the I.D. cards and handouts. Visuals get the point across" about the proper steps in dealing with bycatch. In the fall they plan to have a meeting on the subject with fishermen and scientists.
While the tourism association received a few negative comments from people who saw the news, President Allan McDonald isn't sure how the island's image will be affected by the incident. "Things that were acceptable 20, 30 years ago -- not just in fishing -- are not now," he says. "Laws alone don't protect" species; people have to understand and respect them. "It boils down to education."
While a rumour of charges has circulated on the island, Jim McKinnon, Conservation and Protection supervisor for Fisheries and Oceans Canada in St. George, said on August 6 that none had been laid yet. He did not comment on details of the case, except to state that the file is still open and the investigation is continuing.