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Ireland has Most of World's Endangered Basking Sharks & Needs to Protect Them Legally - Open Letter by International Scientists on World Ocean Day

8th June 2021
Irish coastal waters are “one of the few places globally” where basking sharks “regularly and predictably occur on the surface close to shore
Irish coastal waters are “one of the few places globally” where basking sharks “regularly and predictably occur on the surface close to shore Credit: Nigel Motyer

A group of international scientists is marking world ocean day by calling for legal protection of the basking shark in Irish waters.

Ireland has a global responsibility to protect the world’s second-largest shark and fish – known as Liabhán chor gréine, or the “great fish of the sun” – the scientists state.

In an open letter appealing to the Government, the scientists explain 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 say.

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

The scientists believe section 23 of the Wildlife Act should be amended to protect the endangered species.

They explain that emerging scientific evidence indicates Irish territorial waters host a large proportion of the global population. Yet, Ireland is “one of the few remaining nations in the north-east Atlantic that have not provided domestic legal protection” for them.

“ While there is a moratorium on deliberately fishing for or landing the basking shark, significant challenges remain,” they state.

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

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 say.

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

The basking shark was added to the Convention on Trade In Endangered Species (CITES) in 2003 and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) in 2005.

The scientists have initiated a petition to back their call. Social Democrat TD for Wicklow Dr Jennifer Whitmore has initiated a bill in the Dáil seeking to amend the Wildlife Act to protect the species.

Irish Basking Shark Group founding member Dr Emmett Johnston said “we are privileged to have such a wonderful animal frequenting our waters, which are some of the most important globally for this endangered species”.

“The scientific community have given their full support to list the basking shark under Section 23 of the Wildlife Act, now is the right time to protect them and their habitats”

Signatories include with Dr Johnston include fellow basking shark group founding member Dr Simon Berrow, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology; Dr. Phillip Doherty, University of Exeter; Dr Kevin Flannery, Irish Elasmobranch Group; Pádraic Fogarty, Irish Wildlife Trust; Sarah Fowler, European Elasmobranch Group; Chelsea Grey, Dr Paul Mayo, Dr Donal Griffin, Alex McInturf, Heather Vance and Dr Natasha Phillips of the Irish Basking Shark Group; Jackie and Graham Hall, members of Manx Basking Shark Watch.

Also signatories are Dr Lauren Hartny-Mills, Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust; Ali Hood, Shark Trust UK; Dr Jonathan Houghton, Queens University Belfast; Dr Peter Klimley, University of California, USA; Heidi McIlvenny, Ulster Wildlife Trust; Dr Paul Mensink, Western University, Canada; Dr Nicholas L. Payne, Trinity College Dublin; Professor David Sims, Marine Biological Association of the UK; Padraig Whooley, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group; and Dr Matthew Witt of the University of Exeter.

Sign the petition here

Published in Sharks, Marine Wildlife
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

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 Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004) on Irish helicopter search and rescue; and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010).

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Sharks in Irish waters

Irish waters are home to 71 species of shark, skates and rays, 58 of which have been studied in detail and listed on the Ireland Red List of Cartilaginous fish. Irish sharks range from small Sleeper sharks, Dogfish and Catsharks, to larger species like Frilled, Mackerel and Cow sharks, all the way to the second largest shark in the world, the Basking shark. 

Irish waters provide a refuge for an array of shark species. Tralee Bay, Co. Kerry provides a habitat for several rare and endangered sharks and their relatives, including the migratory tope shark, angel shark and undulate ray. This area is also the last European refuge for the extremely rare white skate. Through a European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) project, Marine Institute scientists have been working with fishermen to assess the distribution, diversity, and monthly relative abundance of skates and rays in Tralee, Brandon and Dingle Bays.

“These areas off the southwest coast of Ireland are important internationally as they hold some of the last remaining refuges for angel shark and white skate,” said Dr Maurice Clarke of the Marine Institute. “This EMFF project has provided data confirming the critically endangered status of some species and provides up-to-date information for the development of fishery measures to eliminate by-catch.” 

Irish waters are also home to the Black Mouthed Catshark, Galeus melastomus, one of Ireland’s smallest shark species which can be found in the deep sea along the continental shelf. In 2018, Irish scientists discovered a very rare shark-nursery 200 nautical miles off the west coast by the Marine Institute’s ROV Holland 1 on a shelf sloping to 750 metres deep. 

There are two ways that sharks are born, either as live young or from egg casings. In the ‘case’ of Black Mouthed Catsharks, the nursery discovered in 2018, was notable by the abundance of egg casings or ‘mermaid’s purses’. Many sharks, rays and skate lay eggs, the cases of which often wash ashore. If you find an egg casing along the seashore, take a photo for Purse Search Ireland, a citizen science project focusing on monitoring the shark, ray and skate species around Ireland.

Another species also found by Irish scientists using the ROV Holland 1 in 2018 was a very rare type of dogfish, the Sail Fin Rough Shark, Oxynotus paradoxus. These sharks are named after their long fins which resemble the trailing sails of a boat, and live in the deep sea in waters up to 750m deep. Like all sharks, skates and rays, they have no bones. Their skeleton is composed of cartilage, much like what our noses and ears are made from! This material is much more flexible and lighter than bone which is perfect for these animals living without the weight of gravity.

Throughout history sharks have been portrayed as the monsters of the sea, a concept that science is continuously debunking. Basking sharks were named in 1765 as Cetorhinus maximus, roughly translated to the ‘big-nosed sea monster’. Basking sharks are filter feeders, often swimming with their mouths agape, they filter plankton from the water.

They are very slow moving and like to bask in the sun in shallow water and are often seen in Irish waters around Spring and early Summer. To help understand the migration of these animals to be better able to understand and conserve these species, the Irish Basking Shark Group have tagged and mapped their travels.

Remarkably, many sharks like the Angel Shark, Squatina squatina have the ability to sense electricity. They do this via small pores in their skin called the ‘Ampullae of Lorenzini’ which are able to detect the tiny electrical impulses of a fish breathing, moving or even its heartbeat from distances of over a kilometre! Angel sharks, often referred to as Monkfish have a distinctively angelic shape, with flattened, large fins appearing like the wings of an angel. They live on the seafloor in the coastal waters of Ireland and much like a cat are nocturnal, primarily active at night.

The intricate complexity of shark adaptations is particularly noticeable in the texture of their skin. Composed of miniscule, perfectly shaped overlapping scales, the skin of shark provides them with protection. Often shark scales have been compared to teeth due to their hard enamel structure. They are strong, but also due to their intricate shape, these scales reduce drag and allow water to glide past them so that the shark can swim more effortlessly and silently. This natural flawless design has been used as inspiration for new neoprene fabric designs to help swimmers glide through the water. Although all sharks have this feature, the Leafscale Gulper Shark, Centrophorus squamosus, found in Ireland are specifically named due to the ornate leaf-shape of their scales.

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