Basking in the Splendor of some Gentle Giants

Did you know that Basking Sharks are the second largest fish in the sea, reaching lengths of 10 meters? Yet despite their large size, these lovely creatures feed only on plankton. Romney McPhie, a biologist specializing in Basking Sharks, shared this and other neat facts with OSSers last Tuesday.

Basking Sharks can sometimes be seen skimming B.C.’s coastal waters, filtering plankton with structures called gill rakes. Once plentiful, catching a glimpse of one today is rare. Populations off the west coast are estimated at no more than 500, and The Species at Risk Act (SARA) lists the shark as endangered.

Considered a nuisance to the fishing industry, these gentle giants were subject to a massive eradication program in the 1950’s. Fishing boats were equipped with a sharp blade that impaled and killed the shark as it fed near the surface. Although, thankfully, no longer in use, the method was highly effective at slaughtering these misunderstood animals. “One boat managed to kill 34 Basking Sharks in a single day,” said McPhie, noting at that time it was considered an accomplishment. The species has yet to recover.

McPhie’s research aims to collect more information about these remarkable animals. Much of her data comes from the use of tags and reported sightings, but she said more information is needed to establish critical habitat and distribution. Details on how to identify and report the Basking Shark is available at http://www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca .

As a closing there was discussion about career advice. In addition to sending resumes and cover letters to prospective employers, often McPhie would stop by to follow-up, or even to just ask some questions about the work being done. When the discussion ended students traded business cards with McPhie so everyone who attended the talk felt connected with her.

McPhie’s career is a reminder to OSSers that if you are passionate about something — pursue it. Your persistence will pay off.

-Meaghan Leah Duke, OSS Member

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