Tina Taylor came face-to-face with two sharks while cod jigging just outside the Quidi Vidi Narrows last month.
She was on her friend Larry Hann’s boat on July 20 for less than two hours when she snapped a picture of the second one as Hann set it free.
‘It was a big, big fish’
Shark sightings in Liverpool harbour
“(Hann) says he’s never seen it since he’s been out there, but the day I was out, that was the second one I hooked. The first one was even bigger, and snapped off the hook,” she said.
“It came up and snapped right off, and it’s a lucky thing I didn’t go overboard, to be honest. It was a big shark.”
The encounters happened around the time caplin was rolling into the area, and Taylor was also treated to sightings of dolphins and breaching whales.
“But apparently it’s not the norm to have sharks here. The first one was huge. The one that’s in the picture you have, that was pretty big, but that was a quarter to half the size of the first one I hooked.”
Taylor’s shark sighting is one of several that have been reported this summer in Newfoundland, and elsewhere in the Atlantic region. But more reports of sightings don’t necessarily mean there are more sharks in the water, scientists say.
Without more data, they can’t really be sure what it means.
“We don’t have a shark index that we can add info to every year,” said Caroly Miri, a marine biologist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) who spends her time studying sharks and skates in Newfoundland and Labrador.
She said DFO does offshore surveys covering most marine animals twice a year, but there is no inshore survey. However, she said it’s noted every year that folks out jigging for cod end up hauling up porbeagle sharks that made a snack out of their cod.
For three years, Miri has been trying to compile data from shark sightings in the province in order to better understand local shark populations and activity. Reports have been scarce, but she said people are becoming less shy about calling in about encounters.
“That gives an impression that there are more sharks around this summer as compared to previous summers, but actually, we can’t say that, because the general public — thankfully — are more and more inclined, and some of them more enthusiastic to contact us here and tell us about their shark encounter, whether they saw it swimming around their boat or whether they actually hooked it when trying to get a cod,” she said.
It could be simple
Fred Whoriskey of the Shark Identification Network and the Ocean Tracking Network of Dalhousie University spoke with The Telegram about the apparent increase in sightings this year. He said he got a call from Newfoundland in July about a fisherman who caught a “very energetic shark” he believes was a porbeagle.
He believes there is probably a simple explanation to the number of sightings reported: “We’re beginning to have more encounters with people around those in parts because there are more people out there doing more things in boats,” he said.
People are also doing things a little differently, he said, like using salmon cages, which can attract hungry and curious sharks. And with an extended food fishery this summer, there are a lot more eyes on the water.
He said rolling caplin likely played a part in bringing the sharks near shore. The increasingly healthy cod stocks may have had a role, by bringing in other species, but Whoriskey said sharks tend to choose fattier meat than cod.
When it comes to people, he said, sharks are probably more afraid of an encounter with a human than we are of them. Whoriskey said he’s not aware of a single fatal shark attack in Canada.
“If you look at the global fatal shark attacks average per year, it’s about 30-60 people globally,” he said. “You compare that to the number of people that are killed by coconuts falling off of coconut trees at resorts, which is 120 people on average. ...
“But any fisherman has to be prudent with any large fish. They’re powerful, they’ve got teeth, and when you’ve got them hooked up they’re angry about this and they’re fighting back.”
A plea for reports
Miri is pleading with the public to get in touch after shark encounters so she can record where and when it happened, along with the shark’s sex and species.
“We dearly need, desperately need, the input and the data from the general public because we don’t have a shark index. We don’t have a shark survey in our waters. So anyone at all if they could make the effort and get this data to me it would be fantastic,” she said.
“It’s really critical, because otherwise we can’t get this information to tell us what are the different shark species doing around Newfoundland and Labrador waters, and how long are they here? When do they disappear again?”
According to the provincial Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture’s website, blue sharks are the most common around Newfoundland. Others that frequent the neighbourhood are mako, greenland, basking (sometimes called sunfish) and porbeagle sharks.
Porbeagle sharks are typically the first species to show up around Newfoundland in the summer, Miri said, as they prefer cooler waters between 2 C and 10 C. As the water warms up later in the summer, blue sharks come in as the porbeagles leave.
Miri said to identify a porbeagle, look for a white blotch on the trailing edge of its first dorsal fin. She said porbeagles are naturally curious and will often aproach boats or scuba divers.
“Tied in with their curiosity, they’re also an opportunistic species, so they’ll feed on anything that they think might be a good meal or a decent snack — like a codfish being pulled up by some unaware person trying to get a feed of cod for their family. If a porbeagle sees a codfish going up through a water column, yeah, it’ll take a snap at it or just take the whole cod away and have an easy meal, and the same thing if there’s any fish guts falling down through the water column.”
If you can get a look at the shark’s underside, for example when a shark is rolling after being hooked, Miri said to look at the small pair of fins next to its anus to determine its sex.
“If it’s a male shark, you’ll see on each of those paired fins, a finger-like projection that we call a clasper,” she said. “Each clasper on an adult male is rigid, because the fertilization of sharks occurs internally.”
The male shark will bite the female shark’s pectoral fin so she won’t swim away as he releases sperm inside her, and the female can retain the sperm packet for up to a year, fertilizing her own eggs as they ovulate no matter where she is. Miri shared these details because they can help identify not only if a shark is male or female, but whether they’ve recently mated.
“I actually have one report this year — someone was out just on a Sunday for a bit of cod jigging and he managed to see — he did hook a porbeagle, but he managed to see one, and the shark slowly rolled, trying to shake off the jigger hook. ... One of the side fins had teeth marks on it, and I just flipped out. I was so excited.”
She said the DFO suspects there is a porbeagle mating ground near Newfoundland, and reports of this type can help them figure it out.
Whether you’re able to identify a shark’s sex or species or not, Miri is hoping if you see one, you’ll let her know. If possible, taking photos like the ones Taylor shared can help. Anyone who would like to report a shark sighting is asked to email Miri at: email@example.com.
To report a shark sighting, contact Carolyn Miri of DFO at firstname.lastname@example.org.