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Legal Protection for Basking Sharks in Irish Coastal Waters

The Irish Basking Shark Study Group have recently written to the Minister of Arts, Heritage, Gaelteacht and the Islands, Jimmy Deenihan TD, urging him to to provide legal protection to basking sharks and their habitat within Irish territorial waters.

The basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) is the second largest fish in the world and is seasonally abundant and widespread in surface waters of Irish coastal seas during the spring and summer months. Historically, the species was important to coastal communities along the western seaboard, especially in Counties Galway, Mayo and Donegal where it was hunted for the oil obtained from its liver. Indeed, the earliest historical description of a basking shark hunt worldwide is from Donegal Bay in 1739 and the basking shark fishery in Achill Island, Co. Mayo was the best documented fishery in the world with a peak of 1,500 sharks caught annually in the 1950’s.

Irish coastal waters and parts of the UK (Cornwall, western Scotland and the Isle of Man) are some of the few places in the world where basking sharks regularly aggregate near the surface in large numbers. This makes them vulnerable to human activities such as fishing, disturbance and coastal developments including renewable energy devices. The basking shark, and its coastal habitats, are awarded full protection under the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act and its equivalent in Northern Ireland, but it has no legal protection in the Republic of Ireland. Under the Bonn Convention (CMS) the basking shark is classed in Appendix I - Endangered Migratory Species and Appendix II – Migratory Species conserved through agreements since November 2005. Parties to CMS are required to protect Appendix I species and contribute to the UNEP/CMS recommendation No.8.16 adopted in 2005 to develop a global migratory shark’s conservation instrument. Under OSPAR, Ireland is also obliged to report on the basking sharks status, encouraged to implement the necessary steps to protect the species, and establish partnerships with an aim to improving the species conservation status.

In recent years there has been an increase in both awareness and interest in basking sharks in Ireland and in our understanding of its ecology. Reported sightings of basking sharks in coastal waters have increased over the past 10 years, both as a result of awareness and recording effort but also likely due to increased occurrence. In Ireland, targeted research on their movements, abundance and feeding behaviour has been underway since 2008. This research has revealed that sharks in Irish waters are highly mobile and part of a larger North Atlantic population for which areas of Irish waters constitute a core surface habitat during spring and summer months (i.e. Blasket Islands, Co Kerry and Malin Head, Co Donegal). Recent genetic studies have revealed some structuring of the population with newly described haplotypes (i.e. genetic fingerprints) unique to Ireland. Marine tourism focusing on basking sharks is developing, especially in Counties Cork, Kerry and Donegal enabling more people to witness this incredible member of our native fauna. However, there is still a huge amount of basic biology to learn about the basking shark. Furthermore, given its slow reproduction rate, seasonal reliance on coastal feeding hotspots, small population size and vulnerability to anthropogenic influences, we believe legal protection in Irish waters will aid its conservation status.

Irish Basking Shark Study Group © Irish Basking Shark Study Group 2013

The Irish Basking Shark Project (IBSP) and its subgroup, the Inishowen Basking Shark Study Group (IBBSG), are a collection of individuals with a deep interest and knowledge of the basking shark in Ireland. The IBSP/IBSSG feel it is very important to provide legal protection to this iconic species in Irish territorial waters to ensure continued awareness of basking sharks and the identification of threats as well as to facilitate conservation management including mitigation of human impacts.

The basking shark is a true oceanic citizen which respects no territorial boundaries. It has a unique place in Irish maritime heritage and we are privileged to have access in Ireland to such an inspiring animal. With this opportunity also comes a responsibility to ensure its protection and safe passage whilst present in Ireland’s waters.

The IBSP/IBSSG is a collection of individuals, NGOs and third-level institutes with a deep interest and knowledge of the basking shark in Ireland. It was established in 2009 and encourages and facilitates research and education on basking sharks in Ireland, including the collection and compilation of public sightings data. It has been carrying out tagging and telemetry studies and pioneered a non-invasive technique for collecting samples for genetic studies.

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