Increased sightings of great white white sharks off P.E.I. no cause for alarm, says expert

·3 min read

When David McKendrick caught the second largest great white shark ever recorded, he didn’t feel good about it.

It was 1983, and the 22-year-old was fishing tuna off the shore of Alberton, P.E.I., when he felt something heavy pulling on his lines.

He hauled in the prize – a massive blue fin tuna, he thought.

However, when he returned to shore, he realized what he had caught.

The shark was over five metres long – the biggest to ever be caught in P.E.I. waters.

In 2014, McKendrick’s catch was named one of the top five shark catches of all time by National Geographic. That same year, he told the Toronto Star he never felt good about catching it, as he knew how rare they were.

Also known as white sharks, the population has been slowly increasing since the 1990s, when stronger regulations against fishing and catching sharks were put in place by the federal government. This July, two great whites were spotted off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Despite the increased number of sightings in the past several years, there is no need for Maritime beach-goers to be concerned for their safety, said Heather Bowlby, research lead at the Canadian Atlantic Shark Research Laboratory at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.

“Today more people know what they’re looking for, so the sightings have gone up,” said Bowlby. “The technology we use has improved, and most people on the water tend to have a camera now.”

In addition, there has been a lot more interest in sharks, so people now know what to look for.

Bit into tuna

Last July, Prince Edward Island boat owners Barry and Jason Doucette caught a 321-pound tuna near North Rustico when a great white shark bit off a large chunk of flesh. Another boat experienced a similar event near Cape Breton in 2020.

Although the population is going up, the likelihood of seeing a white shark near P.E.I. is still extremely rare, as only about 20 per cent of white sharks in the North Atlantic visit Canada.

"At the end of the day, the risk to humans is still low. Don’t be afraid to go to the beach.”

Paul D’Eon, special projects director at the Royal Life Saving Society for P.E.I. and N.S., agrees people going to the beach on P.E.I. have nothing to be worried about.

“It’s much more dangerous to drive to the beach than go into the water,” said D’Eon.

Maritime lifeguards are taught how to identify different movements in the water to determine what the animal is to be able to react accordingly

Most times when large marine life is spotted, it’s assumed it’s a shark. Most people don’t consider it could be a seal or a big fish, added D’Eon, who began working as a lifeguard in 1975 – the same years the film, Jaws, was released.

“There was a terrible paranoia of sharks after that movie came out,” he said.

Before the film was released, the general public hadn’t been exposed to sharks attacking people in movies.

“There was never a fear of going in the water before that,” said D’Eon.

His advice to people is simple.

“Get your feet in the water, don’t fall for the Hollywood hysteria.”

Rafe Wright, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Guardian

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