Basking sharks are to be given legal protection in Ireland!
This month Minister Noonan confirmed that the basking shark will be given the status of a protected wild animal under Section 23 of the Wildlife Act (1976). This is an important announcement for basking sharks and for marine conservation in Ireland.
Why should we protect basking sharks in Irish waters? Due to concerns about a decreasing global population, basking sharks were classified in 2019 by the IUCN as Endangered. Under the EU Common Fisheries Policy, it is prohibited to target, retain trans-shipping, or land basking sharks, even if they were caught incidentally as bycatch. This is an attempt to reduce the demand for basking shark products. In Ireland specifically, basking sharks were historically hunted by small scale subsistence fisheries along the west coast. Achill Island in County Mayo is the most famous basking shark fishery in the world. Over 12,000 sharks were killed off Achill Island, close to Achill Head, with over 1,500 killed in a single year in the 1950s.
It's very hard to tell how many basking sharks there are globally, but conservative estimates using genetic mutation rates suggest there might be as few as 5 or 6,000 breeding sharks worldwide; a more recent estimate puts the total population as probably less than 10,000 sharks. When you consider that many hundreds, if not thousands, of basking sharks may occur in inshore Irish waters at certain times of year, it shows that Ireland is globally important for this endangered and vulnerable species. Therefore, providing legal protection under our Wildlife Act is very important. It also makes Ireland consistent with neighbouring jurisdictions, such as Scotland and Northern Ireland, where basking sharks are legally protected. We share basking shark populations with the UK so it is essential that they are protected throughout this entire range.
What does this protection mean? Legal protection under the Wildlife Act means it is illegal to hunt or injure the species or willfully interfere with, or destroy, their breeding or resting places. Recent research by the Irish Basking Shark Group has shown that the west coast of Ireland may be a very, very important courting and breeding ground for basking sharks during late summer.
In addition to legal protection, the National Parks and Wildlife Service intends to engage with marine eco-tourism operators and recreational/other sea users to develop a formal Code of Conduct to ensure that there is strong awareness of and compliance with international best practice when approaching basking sharks at sea. This is to prevent disturbing their natural behaviours especially during feeding and courtship. There is great potential for basking shark tourism, as you know if you have ever encountered or swam with basking sharks at sea – it’s an experience you will never forget.
This announcement is a really important first step in the protection of this iconic marine species, for which Ireland offers important habitat. We also look forward to the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for basking sharks over the next 5-10 years, using the increasing knowledge we are gaining on this species. Research in Ireland, including by the Irish Basking Shark Group, has begun to examine their movements and site fidelity and identify important areas for this species. Already MPAs for basking sharks exist in Scottish waters. With huge pressures on our inshore waters from offshore renewable energy, marine tourism, aquaculture and increased marine spatial planning, it has never been more important to ensure that impacts on basking sharks are fully considered in risk assessments to ensure Ireland continues to be globally important for this species for generations to come.
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