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Basking Sharks to be Protected Under Wildlife Act After Long Campaign

3rd March 2022
Basking sharks are extraordinary creatures and they’re facing increasing pressures from a range of sources, including disturbance
Basking sharks are extraordinary creatures and they’re facing increasing pressures from a range of sources, including disturbance

Basking sharks are to be given protection by the Government under the Wildlife Act, Minister for Heritage Malcolm Noonan has announced.

The move follows a long campaign by marine scientists, NGOs and school students for protection of Cetorhinus maximus the world’s second-largest shark and fish – known as Liabhán chor gréine, or the “great fish of the sun”.

The number of breeding individuals has been estimated at approximately 8,000-10,000 worldwide, the majority of which are in the north-east Atlantic.

Noonan said that it would be afforded “protected wild animal” status under the Wildlife Act, and this will be supported by development of a code of conduct for sustainable wildlife tourism.

In an open letter last year appealing to the Government for protection of the basking shark, a group of scientists explained that Irish coastal waters are “one of the few places globally” where basking sharks “regularly and predictably occur on the surface close to shore”.

“This surface swimming behaviour is the root of its deep cultural connections with western Irish coastal and island communities,” the scientists said.

“ Current threats to the survival of these magnificent animals include harassment and disturbance, ship collisions, and entanglement,” they stated.

Basking sharks were hunted by the Irish whaling industry in the early 18th century, including off Achill, Co Mayo where thousands of sharks were caught and processed for their liver oil until the 1970s.

“ It may be a surprise for some to hear that it was legal to fish for the basking shark in Irish waters until 2001 and not prohibited in all EU waters until 2006,” the scientists said.

“ Due to these unsustainable practices the shark is now classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered in the northeast Atlantic,” they stated.

Noonan said that work had been underway in his department for a number of months to progress protections for the basking shark.

“ I’m delighted to be able to announce today that they will be finalised in the near future,” Noonan said.

“ Basking sharks are extraordinary creatures and they’re facing increasing pressures from a range of sources, including disturbance,” he said.

“ This move will confer legal protections on them in the short term and enhance their protection in the longer term through the collaborative development of a Code of Conduct to support best practice in sustainable eco tourism,” he said.

He paid tribute to colleagues Minister for Marine Charlie McConalogue and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney “for their support in progressing this important work.

Noonan also thanked “the many members of the public – particularly the young children – who have been so passionate in calling for basking shark protection”.

Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien said that “marine protection is a vital element of the work we do in this department”.

He said that “strong progress is being made in that regard, particularly on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which will form a crucial pillar in ensuring that we have a clean, healthy, diverse and sustainably used marine environment.”

Under Section 23(2)(a) of the Wildlife Act 1976, it is an offence to:

hunt a protected wild animal (unless under permission or licence granted by my Department)

injure a protected wild animal (unless done while hunting in accordance with a licence or exemption cited above), or

wilfully interfere with or destroy the breeding or resting places of a protected wild animal.

The two ministers said the National Parks and Wildlife Service will be engaging with the marine eco-tourism, recreation at sea and wildlife watching industries, as well as environmental NGOs, to develop a code of conduct.

This aims to ensure that “there is strong awareness of and accordance with best practice for operators and the public in observing or encountering marine wildlife such as basking sharks, as well as other species of fish, marine mammals and birds”, they said.

Noonan also indicated his intention to “progress the Programme for Government commitment to review the Wildlife Act”.

This will involve a detailed examination of protections and provisions in the Act, enabling a broader consideration of its effectiveness, he said.

Published in Marine Wildlife
Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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Marine Wildlife Around Ireland One of the greatest memories of any day spent boating around the Irish coast is an encounter with marine wildlife.  It's a thrill for young and old to witness seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales right there in their own habitat. As boaters fortunate enough to have experienced it will testify even spotting a distant dorsal fin can be the highlight of any day afloat.  Was that a porpoise? Was it a whale? No matter how brief the glimpse it's a privilege to share the seas with Irish marine wildlife.

Thanks to the location of our beautiful little island, perched in the North Atlantic Ocean there appears to be no shortage of marine life to observe.

From whales to dolphins, seals, sharks and other ocean animals this page documents the most interesting accounts of marine wildlife around our shores. We're keen to receive your observations, your photos, links and youtube clips.

Boaters have a unique perspective and all those who go afloat, from inshore kayaking to offshore yacht racing that what they encounter can be of real value to specialist organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) who compile a list of sightings and strandings. The IWDG knowledge base has increased over the past 21 years thanks in part at least to the observations of sailors, anglers, kayakers and boaters.

Thanks to the IWDG work we now know we share the seas with dozens of species who also call Ireland home. Here's the current list: Atlantic white-sided dolphin, beluga whale, blue whale, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Cuvier's beaked whale, false killer whale, fin whale, Gervais' beaked whale, harbour porpoise, humpback whale, killer whale, minke whale, northern bottlenose whale, northern right whale, pilot whale, pygmy sperm whale, Risso's dolphin, sei whale, Sowerby's beaked whale, sperm whale, striped dolphin, True's beaked whale and white-beaked dolphin.

But as impressive as the species list is the IWDG believe there are still gaps in our knowledge. Next time you are out on the ocean waves keep a sharp look out!

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