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OCEARCH kicks off final Nova Scotia shark expedition

'It’s been the best place we’ve probably ever worked,' says the research group's founder Chris Fischer
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Chris Fischer and Dr. Bob Hueter greet us as we arrive at the MV OCEARCH (Meghan Groff/HalifaxToday.ca)

When the MV Ocearch, a research ship that has played a key part in understanding the white shark population in Atlantic Canada, sets sail on Wednesday morning, it will be a “bittersweet" experience — because it is the last annual expedition planned for Nova Scotia.

“Our objective was to understand when the sharks are arriving, what they’re doing, and why they’re there — and we know now,” says Chris Fischer, founder of Ocearch, a few days before leaving Utah for Halifax.

“Nova Scotia is spectacular, and it’s become our favourite spot in the North Atlantic. It’s one of those trips like, ‘oh wow, I can’t believe this will be the last trip there for a while.’”

Ocearch takes a more active approach than other agencies to shark tagging, seeking them out and hauling them out of the water to study them.

As you might imagine, this does tend to attract controversy — including a 2018 kerfuffle in Hirtles Beach that earned them a chiding from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Fischer has been called a maverick, compares himself to Jacques Cousteau, and considers his work to be on the radical cutting edge of shark research.

Fischer’s Ocearch outfit has tagged 73 sharks in its Northwest Atlantic White Shark study -- 26 right here in Nova Scotia -- “a data set like that’s never existed anywhere in the world,” Fischer says. He hopes they can reach 100 white sharks, making up a useful dataset for scientists.

Controversy aside, Fischer says their research has helped confirm the notion that there were sharks in Atlantic Canada at all, let alone understand their role in the ecosystem. He calls Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada “the centre of the North Atlantic white shark puzzle,” something that wasn’t well understood before.

“They arrive skinny after a long winter, and they’re coming up there to bulk up on seals,” he says. “They can fatten up to endure the coming winter, and prepare to mate. That’s what’s going on up there."

“We’re identifying exactly where and when [white sharks] are mating, where and when they give birth, where the females are gestating, what’s the full range, how big is the nursery,” adds Fischer, regarding their active methods of shark research. “We developed a much more clinical approach, with a big team of 48 scientists doing 22 projects, to really put together the capacity required to answer these bigger questions that are fundamentally important to making sure all the kids in Nova Scotia can eat lobster rolls and fish sandwiches in the future.”

Such are the stakes, in his mind. Sharks, he says, were poorly understood for so long, and it is only in the last couple of decades that their place in coastal ecosystems has been recognized. 

Without sharks there would be no fish, he says; “if these white sharks aren’t cruising around that area as that apex predator, balancing that system, we can’t manage the system,” he says. “So that’s why this work and this project is so fundamentally important to the future abundance of the planet.”

They are hoping not to be done with Atlantic Canada as a whole, though — they are working on getting permits to do research off the coast of Newfoundland next summer. But as the MV Ocearch sails down to the southeastern shores of Nova Scotia, it will be the last time they see our rocky coast for a while.

“The people have been so amazing, from the lobster fisherman who come out and bring us homemade food, to people who had pizzas delivered for us,” Fischer says. “A lot of times you work places where the people aren’t as connected to the ocean as a place like Nova Scotia, where so many people’s lives are intertwined with the ocean. They just get it."

“It’s been the best place we’ve probably ever worked,” he says, “and it’s a bummer to go in knowing that it’s the last trip for a while.”

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