Stamp of Approval?

Originally posted on July 18, 2018
Canada Post should be commended for releasing a new stamp issue featuring a limited selection of sharks found in Canadian waters. The traditionally maligned creatures desperately need good press so these new stamps will serve as a reminder that sharks play a key role in Canadian marine ecosystems, and that they should be better understood and protected here and beyond. However, it is unfortunate that the image depicting the Greenland shark was modeled on what was likely a photo of a shark caught and lassoed through the ice in the Canadian Arctic.

Lost to the casual observer, this form of mistreatment, which can result in serious injury or death for the shark (Barkley et al., 2016¹), is the ultimate paradox too often perpetrated by overzealous photographers working under the guise of conservation. The first clue is the ocular parasite that is virtually absent from the Greenland shark at lower latitudes, including at our study site in the St. Lawrence Estuary. The downward-facing, semi-vertical swimming position, which understandably better fits the dimensions of the stamp, is also indicative of a shark being tied to a rope by its caudal fin (tail), or of a distressed and potentially centuries-old shark making a beeline for the bottom after being released, i.e. discarded, having served its momentary purpose.

Canada Post Greenland shark stamp, July 2018. Image by Canada Post

Although the circumstances having led to the creation of the original photo may not have been known to anyone involved in the design of the stamp, the use of such an image to illustrate the Greenland shark as a Canadian icon is nonetheless akin to portraying the other sharks featured in this series as hanging from a rope at a shark derby. I don’t doubt anyone’s good intentions but the experts that “helped advise artwork creation” should have known that unlike the brightly lit conditions depicted on the stamp, the Greenland shark is primarily a deepwater bottom dweller with an aversion for light, hence that normally swims in a horizontal position just slightly off the bottom using its large nares to search for food in total darkness. Some of the associated news stories (https://bit.ly/2NWQwnj) also claim that three of the five chosen species are native to Canada and that the remaining two are occasional visitors. In fact, only the Greenland shark is a year-round inhabitant of Canada’s inshore waters, while the other four are seasonal migrants whose birthing areas are hypothetical at best. Furthermore, all of the featured species, including the white shark, have a long history of Canadian sightings and accidental captures in the Maritime provinces, and only the mako shark has not been recorded in Quebec’s St. Lawrence Estuary.

[… the use of such an image to illustrate the Greenland shark as a Canadian icon is akin to portraying the other sharks featured in this series as hanging from a rope at a shark derby.]

The Vancouver Aquarium’s claim (https://bit.ly/2NrprYn) that the Greenland shark is “sometimes caught by fishermen near the mouths of rivers such as the Saguenay River in Quebec” is also only partly true. In fact, the Greenland shark has been documented as a common and plentiful species throughout the St. Lawrence Gulf and Estuary, including the Saguenay Fjord, for nearly 200 years, i.e. they have been caught all over the St. Lawrence for centuries. Aside from these minor technical grievances, here’s to hoping the new stamps by Canada Post will help ensure these amazing sharks remain a permanent fixture of our planet’s natural heritage for many more centuries to come!

See for yourself

As of July 2018, a Google image search using the words “Greenland shark” (http://goo.gl/AVl5y) results in many photos of sharks in the same posture as the one illustrated on the stamp. As described above, the sharks are either tied to a rope or are headed for the bottom after being released. Don’t be fooled by some of the images where the shark is “swimming” horizontally. A quick look at the vertical position of the ice cover, which should be floating horizontally at the surface, shows that the image was rotated, i.e. Photoshopped, to make the distraught shark appear to swim in its normal position. Notice any resemblance?

For more on the controversial topic of Greenland shark photography, go to Hooked on Conservation.


¹ Barkley, A.N., S.J. Cooke, A.T. Fisk, K. Hedges and N.E. Hussey. 2016. Capture-induced stress in deep-water Arctic fish. Polar Biology. DOI: 10.1007/s00300-016-1928-8.

Jeffrey Gallant, M.Sc., is the Scientific Director of the St. Lawrence Shark Observatory (ORS) and of the Greenland Shark and Elasmobranch Education and Research Group (GEERG). He is also the author of the Diving Almanac and a contributing editor of DIVER Magazine. Jeffrey dove with his first shark, a spiny dogfish, off Halifax (Nova Scotia) in 1991.