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The Law Cannot Restore Life To A Dead Shark

Friday, 05 February 2010 17:25
Dead Basking shark at Howth
Dead Basking shark at Howth
(c) Emmett Johnston

However Elaborate, The Law Cannot Restore Life To A Dead Shark!
by Edward Fahy, as published in the marine times in January 2010

On 21st October, skipper Ian Milne of the MFV Celtic Venture landed a basking shark at Howth. He had been trawling Nephrops off Lambay Island when the net enclosed the half tonne fish which was dragged behind his vessel for one or two hours, according to the Irish Independent. The shark was greeted as a culinary delight which, we were told, would be served up as an exotic dish in various restaurants supplied by Doran's on the Pier, the purchaser of the fish, the following week-end. Allowing for the large liver, intestines, skeleton and skin, the fish might have yielded 200 kg of flesh and, at €10 a kg, would have made a turnover of €2,000 for the retailer. Whether anyone actually ate a piece of this fish I do not know and, if it happened, I would be interested to hear a gourmet ? or any punter's - verdict on the experience. I have seen a photo of basket shark (an abbreviation? should perhaps have been basket-case shark?) on sale display, sporting a price tag of €10 a kg which, I presume, had been Mr Milne's prize.

On 22nd July of this year the Irish Independent reported the capture and purchase by Doran's of a porbeagle shark, also known as a mackerel shark, a species which feeds on pelagic finfish, unlike the basking shark which subsists entirely by sieving plankton through its gill rakers. Cooked, porbeagle flesh is not unlike pork and the species is in high demand for this reason. I have never known basking shark flesh to be consumed by anyone although it probably was, at times of famine, after the shoe leather had been boiled up to make soup. Basking sharks have, in the past, been harvested for a number of other products, such as the liver, the flesh going to fish meal. Shark fins are highly prized in the Far East where some species have been known to fetch up to $U.S.700 per kg.

Have we, in Ireland, really reached a point where even those catching and selling fish are either ignorant of or not fussy about the difference between one species and another. Perhaps everything tastes much the same under a dollop of Tabasco sauce?

There are many lessons to be drawn from this basking shark's sorry demise. As a group, sharks are vulnerable to over-fishing and both species referred to here are regarded as endangered. Targeting porbeagles is illegal under E.U. law. There is no shortage of protection for basking shark although one wonders what it all amounts to.

A species that must sieve to live
Less than a fortnight after the basking shark was landed at Howth, an all- Ireland seminar on the species convened at the BIM Fisheries School at Greencastle, Co Donegal. Organisers and associates of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group were much in evidence because their sightings scheme documents the mysterious comings and goings of these enormous shadows in the sea, but the convener of the gathering was Emmett Johnston, a National Parks and Wildlife ranger on the Inishowen Peninsula who has been monitoring basking shark in Co Donegal since 2005. The seminar was part funded by the Heritage Council.

Johnston assembled a wide array of biologists, historians and committed observers who pooled their knowledge on the second largest fish species in existence. While all were modest about their contributions, a coherent explanation for the occurrence of the species emerged.

Tiny but nourishing Copepod species on which basking sharks feed have displaced northward, in response to global warming, and the fish may have moved after the crustaceans. Being categorical about basking sharks is however problematical. No longer hunted, the sophisticated technology of fish catching has lost interest in them and it is largely left to enthusiastic members of the public to collect observations on their distribution and behaviour. Basking sharks can occur in shoals whose size is unknowable unless they all appear simultaneously on the surface. Careful observations suggest group size could number in excess of 50 individuals, ranging in size from less than two to more than nine metres. There appears to be social interaction among individuals and further monitoring might confirm their behaviour is not unlike that of cetaceans whose population dynamics are similar to theirs.

Fisheries for basking shark commenced in the eighteenth century when the liver was harvested to fuel street lighting. In the twentieth century a fishery was briefly resurrected in Achill and, like those documented in books by P. Campbell O?Connor, Tex Geddes, Anthony Watkins and Gavin Maxwell on the west coast of Scotland, it was a boomand- bust affair, based on a small number of slowly reproducing adults. Once the local spawning stock biomass was depleted, the business collapsed.

Norway, a nation which pioneered fisheries for other shark species, notably spurdog, maintained a specialised catcher fleet, built post second world war to hunt basking shark. Their shark hunting tradition was supplied with a quota from the EU until recently but that fishery was also discontinued in the early years of the new millennium. The demise of the last basking shark fishery in Europe was replaced by a concern for its survival, expressed through the proliferation of international treaties.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), of which Ireland is a state member (there are other categories of membership for agencies etc), was founded in Switzerland in 1948. In 1996 IUCN added basking shark to the red list of threatened species and in 2000, described the north east Atlantic population(s) as ?endangered? (point 4 on a seven point scale running from "least concern" to "extinct").

The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) was signed in Bonn in 1979 under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP); in 2009 it has 112 member states. Ireland adopted CMS in 1983. In 2005 CMS added basking shark to a list of species requiring international protection.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) came into existence as the outcome of a meeting of IUCN in 1963. A decade later the text of the Convention was drafted in Washington and it came into force in 1975. Ireland has been a member of CITES since 2002, the year that basking shark in the north east Atlantic was included as an appendix ii species: one which is not necessarily threatened with extinction but which might be if trade in it is not regulated. This Convention ensures that CITES will have a monitoring role on any future trade in the species. Here then, we have three conventions enjoying international support. All have the same objective, the protection of basking shark, but all approach the subject from a slightly different angle. Conventions like these mobilise common interest and they exert pressure on states which might not be fully committed to participate. The lattice-work of protection they extend to their subject is also a scaffold to which more practical measures can be attached. Thus, the CITES regulations enable policy on the management of shark fisheries by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The CMS convention is believed to have prompted the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) to extend protection to basking shark in 2007. According to the CFP, the landing of basking shark by Community or foreign vessels in EU waters is illegal.

Putting conventions to practical use
Signing conventions is the stuff of movies. Very often the event is accompanied by a reception and a photo opportunity. Ireland loves to participate and, in doing so, probably sends out an impression of a nation concerned with conservation issues. So why, after all the signing was it possible to put basking shark meat on sale?

Once a convention has been signed, the real work begins. Its substance must next be transposed into national law. In Ireland the Wildlife Act (1976) provides protection for marine vertebrate species in section 23; the animals to which this protection is extended are listed in the fifth schedule and they are cetaceans and seals. Basking shark is not among them. Crucially, the species is simply not a protected one. The Wildlife (Fish and Aquatic Invertebrate Animals)(Exclusion) Regulations (2001) provides a list of fish species which may be exploited and basking shark is not among those either. However, under that provision, if someone where to decide to harvest the species for commercial purposes, there would be no remedy against doing so.

Why Ireland should be anxious to support international conventions and not sufficiently bothered to implement them within its own jurisdiction is an intriguing question. Lack of interest is an obvious explanation followed closely by the practical consequences of such a step. Protecting a species requires doing something about it.

I accept that the basking shark taken off Lambay was an accidental catch. In the absence of an industry which targets and processes the species it is unlikely that basking shark will be systematically slaughtered. However, the species is casually destroyed by a variety of other methods: accidentally tangled in fishing gear ? which includes gill nets and pot mooring lines. An indeterminate source of mortality is being run over by propellor-powered boats as the shark goes about its business sieving plankton on the surface.

The quantity of static gear in Irish waters has been increasing for thirty years, despite a strong case for it being stabilized and reduced, for other reasons. Basking sharks tend to frequent the same plankton-rich waters ? Keem Bay in Achill Island was one such area ? and in these the activities of power boating should be curtailed. However, as is well known, Ireland prefers to operate its inshore waters unhampered by any restrictions and that probably explains all that has not been done.

Including basking shark on the schedule of protected species confers some benefits however, even if nothing further is undertaken. For one thing it enhances awareness and that would be an improvement: a basking shark should never be confused with a basket.