• tiger shark

    Think there are no sharks in Canadian waters? Think again: A number of shark species are found in our oceans, either year-round or at certain times. The tropical tiger shark (pictured) swims off our coastline during its long migration. (Photo: Albert Kok/Wikimedia Commons)

As a shark biologist and science communicator, I love to talk with my friends and neighbours about my work. I recently moved from Miami to Vancouver to start a research project investigating Canadian shark fisheries. In addition to getting used to life in a different country, I’ve had to significantly adjust my public outreach strategy.

When I lived in Florida, everyone knew about the sharks off the coast, though there were many misconceptions. However, when I’ve told my new Canadian friends what I do for a living, many have been very confused about why I moved here. I’ve been assured by many people that there are no sharks in Canada.

This beautiful country has over 3,400 kilometres of coastline bordering the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans; of course there are sharks here! In fact, according to a 2010 research paper by colleagues of mine, there are 28 different species of shark that spend some or all of their time off Canadian coastlines. Canadian sharks range widely in size, shape, color, and behavior, and include some of the coolest sharks on the planet. We have glow-in-the-dark deepwater lanternsharks. We have thresher sharks, whose long tails are used to whip and stun prey. We have sand tiger sharks, a species best known for eating its siblings while still in the womb. Canadian sharks also include the salmon shark and porbeagle shark, some of the very few fish species that are able to regulate their internal body temperature. The great white shark, made (in)famous by Jaws, is found here, too.

The world’s second-largest shark, the 10-metre-long, filter-feeding basking shark, lives in Canadian waters. Like many Canadians, these sharks head south for the winter. Unfortunately, these gentle giants are in trouble in our waters, and according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, only 12 were seen between 1996 and 2009. In 2010, the Pacific population of basking sharks became the first marine fish listed as Endangered under the Species at Risk Act. These fish were listed as “destructive pests” in the 1950s and 1960s, and were the subject of a federal government eradication program. Fortunately, populations are starting to recover, but the DFO estimates that it could take 200 years — longer than Canada has even existed — for populations to fully recover. 

Canadian sharks include not only shark species commonly thought of as cold water dwellers, such as the blue shark, but also tropical species like tiger sharks, which swim off the coast of Canada during their long migrations. These sharks are infamous for eating just about anything they come across, and are sometimes known as the rubbish bins of the sea. A recent South African study found that this species eats such diverse prey as penguins, porpoises, and porcupines

The Greenland shark, one of my favorite species, lives in the Canadian arctic. This shark, which has been documented eating polar bears and reindeer, may live for up to 400 years. A Greenland shark born on the day of Canadian Confederation 150 years ago may not yet be a reproductively mature adult. I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention that these animals are the slowest-swimming fish ever recorded, and that most of them are blind because of an eye parasite! 

Finally, Canada is home to the Pacific spiny dogfish. In 2011, the Marine Stewardship Council certified the British Columbia spiny dogfish fishery as sustainable. This was the first shark fishery in the world to be certified as sustainable seafood by the influential MSC. Speaking of Canadian shark fisheries, although some of my neighbours have assured me that shark fishing is illegal here, Canada is actually one of the world’s top shark fishing nations in terms of both landings and international exports. While there are success stories of sustainable management, there are also significant conservation concerns involving Canadian shark fisheries, which is the focus of my current research.

When thinking about Canada's rich natural history, there is much to be proud of. Just please don’t forget the sharks!