The Canadian Shark Attack Registry was created by the St. Lawrence Shark Observatory (ORS) following a series of confirmed or suspected incidents involving white sharks in the province of Nova Scotia—including the Gulf of St. Lawrence—in 2021. As of going online in July 2022, there have already been two more reported encounters between sport divers and large-bodied sharks, at least one of which was a white shark, in the Halifax area over the last month. Such incidents, which were previously unheard of, may be indicative of a redistribution or increase of the North Atlantic white shark population, or both. No matter the reason, threatening or violent encounters past and present need to be documented and understood in order to better predict and prevent injury or death, and to promote peaceful coexistence between humans and sharks.
The registry is maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers, all scientists, and every one of us loves sharks. We began studying these maligned creatures in the 90s when most people were unaware of their presence in Canada, and long before there was any kind of organised movement to protect them. We have since conducted multiple research expeditions, published peer-reviewed studies, and accomplished several shark firsts in Canada along the way. Much of our work is conducted underwater, on scuba, and as such we have personally encountered hundreds of sharks close up in myriad situations and environments, most of which were very exciting, but also a few that were downright scary. In short, the first repertoire of shark attacks (a.k.a. incidents, interactions, bites and negative encounters) in Canada is based on decades of first-hand experience, as well as the shared knowledge of our colleagues around the world.
Our goal is straightforward: to protect humans and sharks by painting a picture of what has been, what is happening now, and what is likely to come in the near future. We believe that the general public needs to better understand sharks and the risk they pose on humans entering their domain. Sharks need to be accepted, not feared, for what they are: predators, not of humans, but beasts of prey nonetheless, and incidents will happen no matter how much we love or loathe them. Predicting that occasional bumps and bites are increasingly inevitable is neither clairvoyance nor fear-mongering. It is a realistic assumption based on an understanding of basic shark behaviour related to specific environments.
Like it or not, the white shark appears to be making a comeback in Atlantic Canada and the St. Lawrence; its physical environment is changing under the effects of global warming¹; and increasing numbers of humans are entering the shark’s world every year. As much as we would like to tell people to go about their business as usual, we believe that the risk of agressive shark encounters in Canada has increased, and that it will continue to rise concomitant with the white shark’s protected status and the ecosystemic changes presently occurring in the North Atlantic.
The white shark’s resurgence is a good thing for North Atlantic ecosystems, including Atlantic Canada and the St. Lawrence, which need megafauna such as the white shark for all species big and small to thrive. However, we need to adapt ourselves to this renewed reality. We have to be proactive and focus on knowledge and prevention in order to keep the risk of shark incidents in check, and to better react when the odd bite happens. Let’s get the facts straight while we are cool-headed, and before another incident and the ensuing media frenzy set the cause of shark conservation back another 50 years.
Our long experience working with government agencies, fishers, coastal communities, conservation groups, the general public and the media, have given us a clear understanding of the many stakes and varying interests that influence our respective appreciation of the ocean and of one of its key inhabitants, the shark. But it has also taught us that when everyone’s needs are genuinely understood and appreciated, most people care about sharks and are willing to contribute to their continued existence. The key to moving forward is simple: when dealing with such diverging interests, being truthful and transparent at all times is indispensable in order to establish trust and effect positive change. The same goes for shark conservation.
Hiding reality with slanted statistics or gratuitous claims that sharks are not dangerous or pose no threat to us helps no one, including sharks. We nonetheless expect that some may perceive the Canadian Shark Attack Registry as portraying sharks in a bad light and perpetuating their terrible reputation by reminding us of their infrequent wrongdoings. But we firmly believe that this initiative is in fact one of many currently being undertaken by different groups devoted to the cause of shark conservation across the country. In the words of our late friend and colleague who greatly inspired the careers of many an ichthyologist,