In his 73 years on earth Kugluktuk’s John Kapakatoak had never seen a shark in person. That all changed Sept. 16 when a routine check on his seal nets yielded a 6-foot shark that weighed more than 150 pounds.
“When I saw it at first I thought it was a young beluga,” said Kapakatoak. “But when I pulled the rock off and pulled them up with a Honda to see what it is I could see it was a shark. I’ve never seen one before. That’s the first time I’ve seen a shark my whole life.”
Kapakatoak, who has been hunting and trapping full time since retiring from his job at the hamlet seven years ago, said he immediately took samples of the animal to be sent for testing in Winnipeg.
“I don’t know anything about the shark,” he said.
Nigel Hussey, professor of Integrative Biology at the University of Windsor, has identified the shark as a salmon shark based on images which were shared with him by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. However, he will wait until the samples can be examined before confirming his assessment.
Given that the sharks rely on salmon for food, it is extremely unusual to see such a species in Arctic waters.
“The distribution of salmon sharks certainly doesn’t normally extend up into that region. It’s a very unique capture event. What that means, I don’t know,” he said.
Hussey told Nunavut News that there are several factors which could have contributed to the salmon shark ending up in Kapakatoak’s nets. With sea temperatures rising, Pacific salmon are becoming more common in Northern waters. This phenomenon could potentially be attracting predators such as sharks, Hussey said.
“My impression is that this salmon shark is either a one in a million event and the animal got lost or was carried away in a current,” said Hussey, noting that other that other species of sharks, including great whites, have been tracked further north than usual in recent years. “Or potentially these species are moving further northwards. Obviously that could relate to warming sea surface temperatures, which we know are happening. Or two, it might just be directly tied to where their prey is.”
The shark was dead by the time Kapakatoak pulled it out along with three seals which got caught in the nets. Unlike the seals which don’t put up much of a fight, the shark was really twisted in his nets from trying to fight its way out.
By the time Kapakatoak reached shore news have travelled throughout the community and more than a hundred people came down to greet him and take pictures with his catch. Kapakatoak said no one else in Kugluktuk had ever seen a shark in the community.
“I came in and there was lots of people along my boat because people had never seen a shark before,” he said. “I’ve never heard of nobody report a shark before.”
While he waits for the results of his samples, Kapakatoak said his wife plans to use the skin to try and make leather, while he hopes to boil the skull to mount it on his wall.
“I’m going to keep the head with the teeth. They’re really sharp.”
Hussey added that people should not be afraid of salmon sharks as they are harmless to humans. If another shark happens to be caught, he urged hunters and trappers to share samples of the animal with local fisheries officers so they could be studied.
“If people do encounter unusual animals such as these sharks make sure those encounters are reported because they are extremely valuable,” he said. “It’s cool and its important for understanding climate change.”