On June 8 2011, students and teachers from five schools in and around Victoria B.C. celebrated Oceans Day in a fun and creative way. In an event organized by the Oceans Day Festival Society, thirteen hundred of them gathered to form an aerial image of Canada's most endangered fish.
Also the second largest fish in the world, the basking shark was the perfect choice for an Ocean's Day ambassador. Only 55 years ago, basking shark populations were plentiful—so plentiful that the sharks regularly got tangled in salmon nets, leading people to label them as pests. In response, the department of fisheries declared war on them, using steel blades attached to the bows of patrol vessels to slice the sharks in half.
Today, it's almost impossible to spot a basking shark on the BC coast. Sightings have dwindled to about one per year.
So it was with mixed feelings that Scott Wallace, the Foundation's sustainable fisheries analyst, headed to Victoria to join in the Oceans' Day festivities. The author of Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of BC's Gentle Giants, Wallace knows the sharks' deplorable situation better than anyone. But he was heartened to see so many concerned children learning about this endangered species, then taking to the field in the sunshine to form a gigantic shark with blue jeans, sand, soil, and their own bodies.
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"Fifty years ago," says Wallace, "the grandparents of these children would be figuring out ways of killing the basking shark. And now we're here celebrating them and trying to bring them back. I think that shows how social change can take place very quickly. Within a generation and a half, we've gone from villainizing something to celebrating it."
Though there is little research on basking sharks happening in Canada (simply because there are too few animals to study), there is now a recovery plan in place that incorporates international cooperation and better monitoring and reporting systems.
Despite the odds stacked against the basking shark, Wallace hasn't given up hope. "The basking shark has lived in the world's oceans for thirty million years," he says. "So if it can weather this little storm, I think we'll see them back on our coasts. Maybe not in the next year or two, but over the course of the next few generations."