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How BC Killed All the Sharks

Hysteria and a knifelike ram helped us slaughter the benign basking giants.

By Scott Wallace and Brian Gisborne 7 Dec 2006 |

Scott Wallace is a marine conservationist who works for the David Suzuki Foundation. Brian Gisborne was a commercial fisherman for 18 years, and although he saw hundreds of basking sharks as a child, he has not seen one since 1973. This excerpt is from Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of B.C.'s Gentle Giants, published this year by New Star Books.

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  • Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of B.C.'s Gentle Giants
  • Scott Wallace and Brian Gisborne
  • New Star (2006)

[Editor's note: The basking shark is the second-largest fish in the world, at up to five ton in weight and 15 metres in length. Fossil records indicate they have been around for 30 million years. They were observed in abundance near Tofino by the fur-trading Columbia in 1791. They gave B.C. the myth of the Cadborosaurus. But beginning in the 1950s, the federal government began their extirpation from the coast. Now B.C. produces perhaps one sighting a year, yet they still have no protection. Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of B.C.'s Gentle Giants documents the brutal demise of this plankton-eating behemoth, and asks if we've learned anything from our disregard for the ocean's ecosystems, noting that in the last decade the number of highly destructive "deep-sea bottom trawl tows has increased tenfold." Chapter 4 documents the killings, and is excerpted below.]

By 1948 gillnet fishermen were demanding a bounty on basking sharks. The reported value of basking shark livers was three cents per pound, which would mean average remuneration to a fisherman of approximately $36 to $48 per shark. However, if a shark were to get entangled in a gillnet it would typically destroy between "50 to 100 fathoms of a 200-fathom net valued at between $350 and $400." Evidently, harvesting sharks strictly for their livers was not profitable, and there were too many sharks.

In July of 1948 the Victoria Times reported that west coast fishermen in Barkley Sound were making an "annual cry" for a bounty on basking sharks. Shortly after the salmon fishing season began in Uchucklesit Harbour, "no less than eight of the sharks became ensnarled in nets and were dragged ashore at Kildonan cannery and killed." Each such entanglement resulted in an economic loss of about $3,000 in 2005 dollars. The article further stated that when the provincial Department of Fisheries was approached annually to initiate a bounty (like those for countless other species) for basking sharks, the department claimed basking sharks were simply a natural hazard "just like a storm or any other act of nature."

Starting in 1949, basking sharks finally made it onto the federal fisheries department's list of "Destructive Pests." Membership on the list was essentially a government-endorsed declaration for their eradication or at least control. Other varmints included black bears, merganser ducks, kingfishers, seals and sea lions. All of these animals were regularly killed by fisheries officers while doing their nine-to-five patrols. The tallies of their patrol missions were written up in annual regional reports. Some comments from the 1963 Barkley Sound report include: "Black bears were destroyed only where found on salmon streams with excessive numbers"; "Mergansers were killed this year in considerable numbers during the year's stream patrols"; "Sea lions destroyed by Departmental personnel numbered 34"; and "Hair seal noses submitted for bounty numbered only 20." For several years this was standard fisheries management.

For the first few years, basking sharks were noted in the annual reports but not actively eradicated. The 1949 report stated that "basking sharks appeared in Barkley Sound at the start of the sockeye season and did some damage to fishermen's nets. This year however they did not remain in the area as long as usual and damage was much lighter than it has been for the past few years." The 1950 annual report mentioned that "basking sharks appeared in large numbers during the sockeye season and did a great deal of damage to fishermen's nets."

By 1951, attitudes towards basking sharks had become increasingly antagonistic. In June of that year, The Fisherman reported that the government was experimenting with methods to combat the sharks, presumably with harpooning techniques. The success of this first control program is unknown, but it likely did not result in many kills. The fateful year for basking sharks was 1953. All of British Columbia's newspapers reported stories of Barkley Sound basking sharks destroying the gillnets of at least 30 fishermen in early June. Although the loss was covered by shark insurance, fishermen were growing more impatient about sharing the waters with basking sharks.

Rammed with a knife

In 1955, a more efficient, less cumbersome killing technique was invented, and basking sharks finally suffered the worst consequence of being on the "Destructive Pest" list. That year, the Department of Fisheries commissioned Alberni Engineering and Shipyards to design and install a death-dealing basking shark cutting blade on the bow of the regional fisheries patrol vessel, the Comox Post. The knifelike ram, although not overly sophisticated, was featured in the magazine Popular Mechanics in November 1956. When the crew of the Comox Post approached a school of basking sharks the knife would be lowered from a hinge by a cable so that the cutting edge was just below the surface of the water. The knife is now housed in the Alberni Valley Museum in Port Alberni. Seeing the knife for the first time, you are struck by its sheer simplicity: it is a sharpened, triangular chunk of steel that was likely designed in a few minutes. Paradoxically, the basking shark, which embodies eons of biological design, was incapable of evading this executioner. Sharks cruising obliviously on the surface would be sliced in half.

Newspapers went into a feeding frenzy over the shark-killing knife. On June 22, 1955, the front page of the Victoria Times featured a drawing of a basking shark with the caption, "This is a basking shark, basking and leering. But the smirk will soon be wiped off its ugly face by the fisheries department, which is cutting numerous sharks down to size." The press enthusiastically described the fishermen as victims, demonized the sharks, and endorsed the eradication of this species. The press even went as far as describing the copepod-eating shark as a "salmon-killing monster." The general public was urged to help with the elimination effort by means of recreational harpooning, shooting, and ramming.

After the initial flurry of press commentary on the shark blade in 1955 and 1956, the Comox Post went about its daily job, firing bullets into the occasional sea lion, seal, or merganser and slicing sharks when seasonally abundant. At the end of each fishing season an annual report was written, and over the years the entries for basking sharks appear to diminish. The blade was used over a period of 14 years in the Barkley Sound region, during which time 413 kills were recorded.

Media fed the frenzy

[N]umerous newspaper articles describe the pest removal endeavour. [O]ne was written by a Vancouver Sun reporter who happened to be on the Comox Post for the largest recorded single-day kill of basking sharks, on April 24, 1956: "The great shark slaughter began at noon and continued for hours. We littered the beaches with their livers and the bottom with their carcasses. Up and down the length of Pachena Bay we sailed, slashing and rendering [sic] with the huge knife on the bow of the Comox Post. It was a colossal fight between the ship and the sea monsters, with the ship winning all the matches."

It is not surprising that in 1956 the West Coast Advocate newspaper featured an article headlined "Fisheries Patrol Winning War on Basking Sharks." After 1956 there are no further newspaper articles on either the commercial aspect of or the nuisance associated with basking sharks. The eradication program continued in more or less public silence for 12 more years and appears to have attained its goal of eliminating "the pest" from British Columbia's waters.

Concurrent with the Comox Post slicing basking sharks, other fisheries patrol vessels including the Laurier, Howay and Kitimat were under directives from the federal Department of Fisheries to ram basking sharks if they were encountered during patrols. The sheer force of the collision was intended to mortally injure the sharks. Pete Fletcher grew up in Bamfield and eventually worked for the Canadian Coast Guard for 30 years, primarily as a lighthouse keeper and later servicing the lights. His first job at age 18, however, was as a deckhand on the Laurier in 1955. When the vessel rammed a shark, he says, it was like "going aground on a gravel bar, all the dishes would rattle." Fletcher is a self-declared animal lover. "I always loved animals, as a kid I enjoyed seeing the basking sharks. Back then basking sharks were a fact of life, as common as catching a salmon. I hated my job...killing sea lions, seals, ramming basking sharks. I knew it was not right. I was the wrong guy in the wrong place and that's why I eventually left." Although there are no verified numbers for opportunistic killings, the former Laurier deckhand suggests that 200 to 300 is a good estimate.

There were also periods when the Comox Post was not carrying the knife and instead would use its hull to cut or ram the basking sharks. In May 1965, the logbook of the Comox Post recorded that there was a "good showing of basking sharks off Kelp Bay [near Bamfield], one cut by hull." It is not known how many of the hull-killed animals were reported in the annual government reports. We can infer that the overall actual number killed by all patrol vessels was conservatively reported.

One 'problem,' many killers

Is it fair to blame the Comox Post knife for the disappearance of basking sharks from the B.C. coast? Not completely. The rationale for the eradication program in the first place was to decrease the nuisance factor associated with catching basking sharks in commercial salmon gillnets and, to some degree, trolling gear. When a basking shark is ensnarled in a gillnet it normally spins around in the net until it becomes completely entangled. Few sharks survived this. Once caught, some were sold commercially for their livers, but most, if not dead already, were simply killed by means of a firearm and dragged to shore in an effort to salvage what remained of the gillnet. The total number of basking sharks killed from entanglement is not known, but, given the extent of the problem, there would have been significant unreported mortality incurred by the gillnet fleet. For example, in 1952, Western Fisheries reported that Hugh G. Garrett, a gillnetter, caught seven basking sharks in that one season alone.

Given that basking sharks are easily caught in an assortment of fishing gear aside from gillnets, there were likely many non-reported snarl-ups with troll, crab, herring, trawl, prawn, and longline gear. These accidental entanglements would have killed an unknown number of basking sharks. Fishing interactions, over the long term, were likely the single largest source of human-caused mortality. Based on the extent of documented basking shark and gillnet interactions, we can conservatively estimate that several hundred sharks were killed in this way.

The general public was also killing basking sharks. At one time, the sport of harpooning basking sharks was popular enough that the Canadian Pacific Railway promoted so-called fishing for British Columbia's basking sharks in publicity releases in the late 1940s. Parksville was promoted as the "shark fishing mecca of the Pacific Northwest," and "scores" of anglers from California, Washington, Oregon, and even the eastern states were said to come to Vancouver Island for the sport. Apparently the sport took off after a basking shark washed up on a beach in Parksville; local anglers were inspired to catch another one. Early attempts involved snaring the sharks using "clothesline" fishing tackle. Harpooning soon caught on, with recreational fishers using 600 feet of half-inch rope with a harpoon at one end and a metal drum at the other.

As with other elements of the basking sharks' history in our waters, the sport record is incomplete. It is not possible to estimate the number of basking sharks killed for sport in the 1940s through to the mid-1960s as the only written records are in newspaper stories. The story has been partly conveyed by newspaper headlines during this period.

Surrogate whales, and motorboat ramps

It can be assumed the newspapers only covered a small fraction of the actual encounters. For many coastal residents, harassing basking sharks was simply a way of life in the 1950s and 1960s. Eric Wickham, one-time fisherman and current president of the Canadian Sablefish Association, recounts his boyhood Bamfield pastime of ramming the sharks with small boats for fun and harpooning them for the thrill of the ride and the challenge for a "young whaler" to kill a basking shark. Pete Fletcher, who also spent his boyhood in Bamfield, remembers how basking sharks were used for target practice by staff at the Bamfield Cable Station. One shark, Old Joe, was "riddled with so many bullets that his dorsal fin looked like Swiss cheese." Old Joe, an exceptional basking shark, was a regular in Bamfield Inlet and, as such, the fishing community somehow accepted him. He apparently met his fate when a new captain on a scheduled cargo ferry thought he would do the community a favour by ramming the shark.

Harassment by harpooning, shooting and ramming was an endorsed activity in the "War on Sharks." One newspaper reported that "many Canadian and American sportsmen planned to unite forces" in the fight. Gordie Lamb, a teenager in Bamfield in the late 1950s and early 60s, participated in the eradication effort by harpooning basking sharks primarily for fun. He was successful in bringing four kills to shore with the assistance of his older friend Bill Fullerton, who was a first-year zoology student at the University of British Columbia. "I remember dissecting the brain cavity, which was about the size of a pound of butter and the actual brain was much smaller and would fit into about the size of a matchbox," Fullerton recalls.

Another fun activity for Bamfield boys at this time was using the backs of basking sharks as an Evel Knievel-style motorboat ramp. They would simply find a basking shark, open the throttle on their 10-horsepower engine and head on a course perpendicular to the shark. Upon impact, the engine would kick up, the 16-foot boat would take flight, and the surprised basking shark would flick its tail, causing an enormous spray of water, and dive away from the irritant, apparently unharmed.

The sport fishing and harassment record, although far from complete, tells us that basking sharks were obviously present in large enough numbers and sufficiently distributed to make them sport. It is particularly interesting that so many encounters occurred in the Strait of Georgia. The strait is a semi-enclosed body of water that is ecologically and geographically quite different from the rest of British Columbia's marine waters. The total number of basking sharks killed by harassment and for recreation is unknown, but may have been in the hundreds.

A movie and a plastic model

In May 1955, a 15-foot shark, possibly a basking shark, was reported cruising in the area of Qualicum Beach. The following year, in August 1956, two boaters literally ran into a basking shark in Saanich Inlet. Prior to the episode, a bystander reported watching four basking sharks in the area for two hours. The following year, in November 1957, a 30-foot basking shark was observed in Saanich Inlet. In August 1958, a "blackfish" was reported responsible for capsizing a 12-foot boat in Oak Bay. In the same month an 18-foot shark confirmed to be a basking shark was caught off Bowen Island in a gillnet. A month later, in September 1958, a 27-foot, 10-inch basking shark was accidentally caught by a gillnetter "fishing off a small island at the south end of Bowen Island." In July 1959, a 23-foot basking shark appeared in Esquimalt Harbour. These oddball sightings and mentions of basking sharks in newspapers and historical documents are useful for understanding their historical geographical extent and abundance.

Finally, in April 1962, the Smithsonian Institution in collaboration with the Vancouver Public Aquarium used the Comox Post to harpoon a basking shark that was used to make a plastic model replica for display. In 1964, the National Film Board of Canada produced a short documentary entitled Shark Hunt, which shows the Comox Post bringing in the basking shark used for the plastic model.

By 1970 the war unceremoniously fizzled as the enemy was conquered. The Comox Post no longer patrolled with a knife, children no longer pretended they were whalers, fishermen stopped complaining of basking sharks getting tangled in their gear, and mariners on the coast no longer regularly encountered basking sharks. British Columbia's post-slaughter coast is void of basking sharks. Sightings have become as rare as those of the fabled Cadborosaurus. Basking sharks have even disappeared from Clayoquot Sound, where a small, perhaps remnant, population was observed between 1970 and the early 1990s.