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Environment

Off Canada’s East Coast, a hunt to detect ‘beautiful’ great white sharks

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HALIFAX — The great white sharks move torpedo-like through East Coast waters, cruelly efficient hunters with multiple rows of serrated teeth devouring seals and other prey.

But the “fascinating” creatures are themselves being closely watched by international teams of scientists who are attempting to document their apparent renaissance in the northwest Atlantic.

“We are seeing signs the conservation measures we’re taking are giving the animals a chance and enabling a comeback,” says Frederick Whoriskey, a marine biologist and ecologist at Dalhousie University.

“But we don’t have the numbers (of their abundance) yet.”

At her lab in Halifax’s Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Heather Bowlby, research lead at the federal Canadian Atlantic Shark Research Laboratory, is attempting to remedy that.

She’s preparing an expedition for early August to build on the scant knowledge of these elusive creatures’ lives in Atlantic Canadian waters.

Her three-person team will pull alongside the animals and rapidly attach a tag that records information, a potentially dangerous task given their immense power.

The work is worth the effort, she says.

“As a top predator, if the population can increase it suggests the ecosystem is healthy enough to support them, which is very important.”

The biologist says there’s been “a definite increase in sightings” since fishing rules of the past decade protected animals caught on long lines and in weirs.

Records go back over a century — complete with annotations such as an 1873 entry from a St. Pierre Bank, N.L., fisherman remarking, “teeth in dory.”

However, the federal Fisheries Department’s partnership with American researcher Gregory Skomal, of the Massachusetts division of marine fisheries, and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, will provide more reliable information.

Skomal’s group is preparing a population estimate in his area, where there’s evidence of what scientists refer to as a “hot spot” of sharks at various stages of life feasting on abundant seals off Cape Cod.

“It seems to be their first stop on the highway on the drive from Florida to Canada, where you can find a pretty good meal,” Skomal explains in a telephone interview from his office.

His team’s survey tags an animal and then returns to that area to see how many others are spotted or captured, before recapturing one of the original sharks from the prior visits.

“We have to come up with that number for Cape Cod and then we can take a hard look at what proportion of our animals move into Canadian waters,” the American researcher explains.

Skomal says so far his team has identified and tagged roughly 20 great whites — out of about 170 tagged in the area — that are prone to northward journeys over the five year study in his zone.

In anticipation of their arrival off Nova Scotia, Bowlby’s team has access to arrays of acoustic stations listening for their “ping” over this summer and fall.

She tagged one great white herself last year off the Nova Scotia coast, nicknamed “North.”

The data gathered on the sharks’ trips, the depths they went to and surrounding water temperatures may give Bowlby data on their preferred habitat.

So far, she’s noting the sharks are appearing to search along the coasts for prey and are in both deep and shallow water, and often near the surface.

Still, one of the questions bothering some experts is why great whites are seldom detected by acoustic arrays near Sable Island, where thousands of seals make their home.

Whoriskey’s “speculation” is the grey seals are forming social units that can fight off one of their deadliest enemies.

Meanwhile, a non-profit group that’s made some great white sharks into household names in Nova Scotia has applied for a permit to conduct a return visit off Cape Breton from Sept. 13 to Oct. 4.

Last fall, teams from the Ocearch research vessel MV Ocearch caught and tagged satellite transmitters of seven great whites off Lunenburg and Halifax.

The animals are given Twitter names such as “Hal” and thousands of people follow them on the organization’s online global shark tracker, effectively becoming cheerleaders for great whites’ apparent comeback.

Bob Hueter, Ocearch’s chief science adviser and a shark biologist at Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory, says his group’s research is showing the wide range of the great white sharks from southern Florida to the Cabot Strait.

“A good proportion we’ve tagged since 2012 have gone to Atlantic Canada waters and have spent time in Nova Scotia,” he said in a telephone interview.

He says his group’s goal is to have fully tagged 60 sharks of various sizes and ages from Florida to Nova Scotia and to track their movements and habitats.

For Bowlby, the end game is greater knowledge on habitat, feeding habits and even shark nursing grounds — though so far none have been found — leading to better informed policy decisions.

For example, if the sharks are once again consuming seals in large numbers, this data can affect policy decisions on permitting a cull of the massive herds.

In addition, there is the curiosity — even awe — over how one of the ocean’s great animals behave in their lifetimes.

“They’re beautiful, they’re fascinating, they’re graceful, they’re powerful. They’re amazing animals,” the scientist says.

— Follow (at)mtuttoncporg on Twitter.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press


Environment

Three confirmed dead in fiery Alberta crash with semi trucks, passenger vehicles

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CEREAL, Alta. — A Saskatchewan man says a well-timed pit stop may have helped him avoid getting caught in a fiery 10-vehicle crash in southeastern Alberta that killed three people.

Dore Germo and his wife left Kelowna, B.C., on Monday after a holiday visiting friends and, after a night in Calgary, were on their way home to Warman, Sask., on Tuesday.

They stopped for gas and a break in Hanna, Alta., about 80 kilometres from where seven passenger vehicles and three semi trucks collided on Highway 9.

The couple could see smoke as they continued east, but they thought it was just a grass fire.

Then they saw flashing lights and heard sirens and a police officer was running down the middle of the road yelling, “Get out!”

Germo says they were directed to a rural side road to get around the crash, and from there they could make out a tanker truck and burned vehicles amid the smoke.

“It was quite a sickening kind of empty feeling once you realized that — yes — those are people just going about their day and travelling somewhere,” Germo said in an interview Wednesday.

“It kind of looked like a bomb had gone off because there were these burnt out vehicles and it was very eerie.”

He said he’s praying for those involved.

“The first thing you think of is those poor families.”

RCMP confirmed Wednesday that three people were found dead at the scene of the crash between the small communities of Chinook and Cereal, about 300 kilometres east of Calgary. Ten people were injured, two critically.

One of the semi trucks that was carrying fuel ignited, causing several vehicles to catch fire, and another truck was carrying butane.

A stretch of Highway 9 was expected to remain closed until about mid-day, while crews clear the collision area and recover dangerous goods in one of the trucks.

The RCMP’s victim services unit is providing support to people involved in the crash.

“The investigation into this collision remains a lengthy process given the nature of the crash scene,” RCMP said in Wednesday’s release. “It is anticipated that it will take several weeks for the collision analyst to complete the investigation.”

— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary

The Canadian Press

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Environment

Politicians say elections law restricting partisan ads is ‘absurd,’ ‘lunacy’

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OTTAWA — The man whose position on climate change is at the centre of a controversy over partisan campaign rhetoric weighed in Monday, saying Elections Canada is stifling free speech if environmental groups can’t produce ads that describe global warming as a real crisis borne of human behaviour.

Maxime Bernier, leader of the nascent People’s Party of Canada and an outspoken climate-change denier, was responding on Twitter to the agency’s warning that ads that discuss the legitimacy of the phenomenon — including paid social media placements — could be considered partisan simply because of the position of the People’s Party.

In a word, Bernier summed up Elections Canada’s position as “absurd.”

“The law should only regulate real partisan advertising, which is when there is mention of a candidate or party by name,” he said.

The Canada Elections Act does indeed restrict any third-party advertising that either mentions a party or candidate by name, or promotes or disputes an issue or position taken by a party or candidate. Once the costs of such ads hit $500, the third party must register with Elections Canada, produce records and financial reports and limit the amount of advertising it undertakes.

“There are hundreds of potentially contentious issues that could be considered partisan if this rule were to be applied consistently,” Bernier said.

Natasha Gauthier, a spokeswoman for Elections Canada, said the climate-change warning was just an example of an ad that could be deemed partisan, and that any decision about specific activities would be decided on a case-by-case basis and only if there is a complaint. That decision also will be made by the commissioner of Canada elections.

Elections Canada does not know in advance what issues might come up during the campaign, Gauthier added, but said if a party or candidate takes a position on something, any organization that advertises or does work on that issue will need to make sure they comply with the law. For example, an association promoting the benefits of forestry jobs could find its ads offside if a party suddenly makes forestry jobs a campaign issue, she warned.

Third parties should “be careful, because it depends on the situation,” Gauthier said, adding that the rules around advertising are not new.

Even so, the agency’s decision to cite climate change as a specific example has left environment groups feeling muzzled, and others wondering how far partisan labels will go.

“This is lunacy,” said Green party Leader Elizabeth May. “Elections Canada is not a lunatic organization so I trust they will clarify and eliminate this ruling.”

If Bernier were to suddenly say he believes smoking is good for people, May wondered aloud, would any organization that promotes the health dangers of smoking suddenly be deemed partisan? Others on Twitter questioned whether the earth being round could suddenly become a partisan statement if a candidate were to publicly insist the earth is flat.

“It’s not partisan to discuss the single greatest threat faced by humanity,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said of climate change.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he will look very closely at what Elections Canada has said, but added that he trusts them to make independent decisions about the Canada Elections Act.

“We will always respect Elections Canada’s role and responsibility to independently apply electoral law,” Trudeau said.

“But I think the whole question highlights the fact that it is so frustrating that there are still conservative politicians in this country who don’t think climate change is real and certainly don’t think we should be doing anything to fight it.”

Several organizations say they now are planning to withdraw any advertising during the writ period that may discuss the scope of climate change, even though it doesn’t mention any party or politician by name.

“We’re screening everything we post or boost online,” said Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada. “Greenpeace Canada will continue to talk about climate change but we won’t be paying to boost that online or take out ads in newspapers.”

Stewart said Greenpeace registered last time, but described the process as onerous and time consuming — not worth it in 2019 for the roughly $2,500 worth of ads they did in 2015.

Greenpeace is not a charity, but there is added pressure on environmental groups that are who fear a Canada Revenue Agency audit should Elections Canada suddenly deem their activities to be partisan, Stewart said. The CRA has rules on partisan behaviour, and even if charities believe they are in compliance, the cost and time associated with an audit could cause them to rethink their campaign activities, he said.

New rules in legislation passed by Parliament last year also created new limitations on third-party activities that are not related to advertising. Restrictions on partisan activities could prevent organizations from assessing party policies or platforms, for example, something that was often done in the past.

While the rules don’t bar such activities entirely, they do require an organization to decide when the cost exceeds $500, and trying to determine the staff costs and overhead associated with responding to a platform is difficult enough that many organizations simply might avoid it entirely.

Trevor Melanson, a communications manager at Clean Energy Canada, said under the new rules, his organization resisted issuing a statement when Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he was going to get rid of the clean fuel standard being introduced by the Liberal government. Melanson said the standard is an issue his organization has spent years studying, and felt restrained from speaking out about it.

“It has a very real chilling effect on us,” he said.

Stewart said he has some sympathy for Elections Canada “trying to deal with growing concerns with third parties trying to manipulate elections.”

But turning facts into partisan fodder isn’t something the agency should tolerate, he added: “The aggravating thing here for me is science is not partisan.”

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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august, 2019

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