When fisherman Matthew James Basque-Augustine saw a sharp fin caught in his lines, he was convinced it belonged to a great white shark.
“There’s a lot of fear because I haven’t been in a very big boat,” he said.
It happened about 10 years ago – just off Cape Richibuctou, about 65 kilometers north of Moncton – and then there were hardly any sharks there.
Basque-Augustine said people would laugh when he told them about the shark, and recently more and more fishermen have been catching lemon sharks and other shark species on their lines.
“”[They] believe me now, but no one would have believed me then,” he said.
“It’s getting more real out there [are] great whites out there.’
Maritime sightings of great white sharks are on the rise and have fueled interest in the mysterious predators.
New documentary from CBC The nature of thingscalled Jawsome: Canada’s Great White Sharksinvestigates the history of great white sharks in the Atlantic and whether they have become more common there.
White sharks seen on the east coast are part of a population that stretches from South America all the way to Newfoundland. They visit Canada seasonally in late summer and early fall.
“You [can] we’ve seen a lot more of them than before,” said Michael Basque, a fisherman from the Potlotek First Nation, about 250 kilometers northeast of Halifax.
He said until about 10 years ago it was rare to see a shark.
Atlantic great white sharks are considered endangered in Canada and are listed as a vulnerable species worldwide. As a population, they are difficult to study and monitor because they are mostly solitary and can migrate thousands of kilometers.
Basque said that unlike the dolphins and whales that come up to his boat and show off, the sharks are much less curious.
“By the time you see the sharks, they’re usually gone,” he said.
Basque said he has seen about six sharks, blue and white, in the past 10 years.
Along Maine’s Cobscook Inlet, more than 100 kilometers southwest of Saint John, there is evidence that sharks have been in the area for a long time.
Archaeologist Matthew Betts of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., found shark teeth in ancient shell piles at least 4,000 years old.
“Most shark teeth found in graves or at burials or ceremonies seem to have been worn as pendants,” he says in the documentary.
He said the teeth usually have notches on the sides or holes drilled through the center.
“What it suggests to us is a very deep and ingrained relationship between the people here and the sharks,” he said.
However, Betts said shark teeth disappear from these archaeological sites around the time Europeans arrived on the East Coast.
“Such a deep and long-standing relationship suddenly ends,” he said.
However, not everyone agrees with this attitude.
Bernard Francis, a Mi’kmaw linguist from Membertou First Nation in Nova Scotia, said he had never heard stories of sharks in his community.
“I don’t know if there’s any special relationship between the Mi’kmaw people and sharks,” he said.
He said the Mi’kmaq are known to have traveled more than 1,000 kilometers away, and shark teeth found at these archaeological sites could be gifts from other tribes.
“It’s not uncommon for us to have things that were never there,” Francis said.
But he said the Mi’kmaq have a word for shark – it is vipitamekw and means “many-toothed”.
In a 2004 Canadian Journal of Native Studies article titled Ancient M’ikmaq Customs: A Shaman’s Revelations, Earle Lockerby wrote about a letter from a 17th-century priest who recorded a conversation with a Mi’kmaw shaman, describing life before colonization and recounting how the Mi’kmaq would deal with attacks by “bad fish.”
“All too often these malevolent creatures attack the sterns of our canoes so suddenly and without warning that they sink the boat and all in it,” the letter quoted the shaman as saying.
“Some swim away, but there are always those who fall prey to these voracious carnivorous fish.”
The shaman added that the people in the canoes would try to harpoon the creature and fend it off for a short time, giving them a chance to paddle towards land.
Melissa and Todd Labrador, Mi’kmaw canoe builders from Kespukwitko in southwestern Nova Scotia, said there is traditional knowledge to fight sharks.
Their ancestors are said to have hunted whales and porpoises from long birchbark canoes with a ridge in the middle, built to navigate ocean waters.
Melissa said her ancestors would try to trick the sharks into thinking the animals were getting too close to land.
“If you get too close to shore, you run the risk of being washed ashore,” she said.
“[It’s] what my people knew through generations of observation. We would put up roots and tie it to the bottom of the canoe with eelgrass or various things that would be near the shore.”
Melissa said that by splitting the spruce roots and tying them to the canoe along with other plants, they would release an oil into the water that the sharks could taste.
“Then if the shark [saw] in the bottom of the canoe, instead of thinking ‘Oh, that looks like a lovely seal for lunch’, I’d be nervous because it might be too close to shore,” she said.
One of the reasons sharks are attracted to Atlantic Canada is to feed on the rich population of seals. Young white sharks will eat fish and other small sharks, but as they grow up they seek out larger animals such as sea lions, dolphins and seals.
A great white shark can grow up to about six meters in length and usually weighs up to 1,800 kilograms.
“We have to understand that sharks have been here for thousands of years,” Todd said.
“They are here for a reason, so we have to respect them and that they are just as important as anything else on this planet.”
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