There’s something in the water: OCEARCH on the lookout for white sharks off Canso

By Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
October 7 2020

CANSO – In June of 2019 The Journal reported on white shark sightings near the shores of Tor Bay Provincial Park. While many were surprised to learn the world-renowned predator was cruising near one of the most popular local beaches, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans told The Journal that the sighting, while unusual, wasn’t unprecedented; white sharks have been reported in Nova Scotian waters since the 1800s.

Offshore rock ledges, populated by colonies of seals, which can be found near Tor Bay and Canso, are an ideal hunting ground for white sharks. And it is that habitat that has drawn the attention of OCEARCH; “a data-centric, non-profit organization built to help scientists collect previously unattainable data in the ocean…(that) provides a free open-sourced Shark Tracking service and app that allows scientists, educators, and fans alike to learn about the never before documented movements of our ocean's apex predator.”

OCEARCH launched its Nova Scotia 2020 expedition on September 8 and after sheltering from Hurricane Teddy near P.E.I., headed towards the Canso Islands where they searched for research subjects. OCEARCH founder and expedition leader Chris Fischer spoke to The Journal about their two-day tour in the waters off Canso, what they saw, and what they hope to see in the future.

“When we came out after Hurricane Teddy the weather was much better off of Canso than we expected. It’s one of those areas out there, way off the rocks, out to the east. It was one of the places that we always wanted to look at to see if white sharks were in the area. It looked like the right type of habitat, the right structure, the right depth and so forth. We stayed there and looked around about two days after Hurricane Teddy and we did not see any white sharks there,” reported Fischer.

“We know we have tracked white sharks through the area before. We wanted to spend some time there to see what it looked like and I think, because we came in the day after Hurricane Teddy (September 23), it seemed like everything had really been disrupted a bit by the storm. We weren’t really seeing any seals…it’s like the storm changed how the area was and probably needed a little time to regroup after the storm,” said Fischer.

But the absence of white shark sightings on the trip hasn’t dissuaded the OCEARCH team from considering Canso as an area for further study. “This looks perfect for white sharks, based on what we’ve seen. This is our 39th expedition around the world. When we look at the places we’ve found white sharks in Africa, in the Pacific and various other places; we all felt very strongly that it looked like a place where white sharks would spend time fairly regularly. It just might be the wrong time, primarily because of Hurricane Teddy.

“I think we’ll probably spend more time there (Canso) in the future…It’s great to find places like that as we’re working across Atlantic Canada. What’s great about the structure there is you can hide from the wind and the swell in many different weather conditions. It looks like a place you could work in a lot of different conditions and it looks like the right habitat for white sharks to be in there hunting for seals, tuna and various other things,” said Fischer adding, “We stopped in. We loved what it looked like. We did not see anything while we were there, but it doesn’t mean we won’t be back again next year.”

OCEARCH captures white sharks and humanely conducts experiments to gather data on the species. “We do 21 research projects on every animal…We track them in real time on and all the other research is done to determine what they are doing there. Are they mating there? Are they just feeding there? What’s the toxicology makeup in their system compared to what they are eating there so we can understand the general ocean health. We are taking bacteria off their teeth, tongue and bodies for new drug discoveries for humans as well as to understand what bacteria are in the mouths so we can advise local hospitals what antibiotics to use should you have a shark interaction,” said Fischer.

White sharks, said Fischer, “are the guardians of your fish stocks. They are preventing the seals from wiping out your lobster, your cod, your mackerel. It’s important that we understand what these white sharks are doing and help them flourish. As the seal population continues to grow, ultimately it will be white sharks, for lack of a better term, that guard fish stocks from the over-foraging of seals.

“That’s why we are trying to understand what the white sharks are doing because they will ensure a robust commercial and recreation fishery here for multiple generations as they recover and prevent those seals from over foraging,” he reiterated.