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N.S. shark derbies cancelled after Fisheries officials say events don’t advance research

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has stopped issuing the science licences used to authorize the derbies and organizers say trying to use recreational licences isn't practical.

Far more sharks die as commercial bycatch, according to watchdog report

A shark is seen being pulled onto a boat by a green rope tied around its neck.

All three shark-fishing tournaments remaining in Nova Scotia have been cancelled this summer, a potentially permanent end to annual events dating back 30 years.

This year, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) stopped issuing the science licences used to authorize the derbies and organizers cannot swallow DFO conditions that would have allowed them to continue.

"The bottom line is we're not going to be able to hold the tournaments any longer," said Bob Gavel, organizer of the Yarmouth Shark Scramble, largest of the derbies. It ran for 24 years in southwestern Nova Scotia before this summer's cancellation.

"I'm very disappointed to say the least. It has a great impact on the local economy. It brought tons of tourists to the waterfront — in the thousands."

This week the Petit de Grat Shark Derby in Cape Breton was called off as well.

The Lockeport Sea Derby in Shelburne County will continue, but only for mackerel and groundfish.

All the derbies are usually held in August.

No scientific justification

For almost a decade, the tournaments have been authorized based on the scientific information they can provide. But Fisheries officials have decided there is no longer any justification for landing sharks for research.

Since 2018 only one species — blue sharks — can be kept. Derby fishing for porbeagle, thresher and shortfin mako sharks have been banned.

People in yellow vests are seen on the hull of a boar while one of them holds a shark down for dissection.

DFO said the sample size is also unrepresentative because it includes only a few dozen large, mostly male, blue sharks.

"The issue we are facing today is that the scientific data gained by landing sharks from tournaments in recent history is not contributing or advancing departmental DFO shark research," DFO resources manager Carl MacDonald told organizers according to records of an October 2022 meeting on the future of the shark tournaments.

Other options impractical or dangerous

DFO told tournament organizers a recreational fishing licence was an option. But organizers say bringing sharks on board to weigh, or even alongside to measure, makes catch and release too dangerous for people handling the fish

The other requirement — that landed blue sharks must be used for human food — was impractical, said Lockeport Sea Derby president George Benham.

"If we had say 10 or 15 sharks landed, we don't have a market for 100 per cent of that. It would be too hard to get rid of that many. We just couldn't do it. I don't think any of the derbies could do that," Benham told CBC News.

Tournament take too small to make a difference

Ending the tournaments will likely have little effect on the blue shark population.

In 2022, 60 sharks weighing 5,800 kilograms were landed between the three tournaments.

That represents a tiny fraction of blue sharks caught accidentally by commercial fleets fishing for other species like swordfish and tuna.

A 2017 Marine Stewardship Council assessment of Atlantic Canada's longline swordfish fleet estimated between 2011 and 2015 an average of 1.5-million kilograms per year of blue sharks were retained or discarded as bycatch.

A dead shark hangs by its tail fin while being weighed on a dock with two men standing in the background.

"From a conservation point of view, the number of sharks that tournaments are taking are not a threat to the population." said Shannon Arnold of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.

"We've never been opposed to the shark tournaments, especially since they were no longer allowed to land any threatened species."

Arnold said some catch-and-release shark tournaments in the United States use cellphones to document catches at sea and broadcast it back live to shore.

"There's a beer garden, whatever. And they have a big screen set up and people are out there like in real time with their cellphones, they can measure it and it's on video and people are watching it. It's pretty cool."

Three people hold down a shark while it's measured.

Number of sharks taken is down

The number of tournaments and sharks landed in Nova Scotia has steadily fallen over the past decade.

Since 2006, tournaments have been held in eight different ports. That was whittled down to three in recent years. The Riverport derby was last held in 2016 and Louisbourg in 2018.

According to a DFO report, since 2006 a total of 2,964 sharks of all species were taken.

Between 2011 and 2016 tournaments were landing about 300 sharks per year with an average of about 23 boats participating.

"We've reduced the number of sharks. Last year, even though we had over 100 participants, only 40 odd sharks were landed," said Yarmouth's Gavel.

"We've done everything DFO asked."

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