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We Have Updated Our Code Of Conduct

Many people assume bad intentions when they witness someone behaving inappropriately around a wild animal. While intentional harm can, and does, happen, a large percentage of incidents come from the fact that humans almost always underestimate their impact on the natural world.  If you’ve visited a national park, you’ve probably strayed off the trail for a photo or a shortcut.  You almost certainly didn’t think about the impact of your footsteps, despite the fact that these unofficial trails (known as ‘social trails’) are a well-documented threat to plants and ecosystems and a real management issue for park management across the world. 

In general, people often underestimate the impact of what they consider “harmless” recreational activities.  When you add in travel, tourists often assume that their personal impact is actually positive, while it’s only other people who have a negative impact.  Tourists are also less likely to reduce their environmental impact when traveling, an issue Ireland likely feels acutely.  

It is possible to maintain a safe distance and still enjoy these amazing creatures, which can easily been seen seasonally along Ireland's coast.

It has been the Irish Basking Shark Group’s experience that many people assume, because basking sharks are so big and humans so small, that any human impact on this species must be negligible.  This is incorrect, as basking sharks in Ireland have altered behavior and exhibited signs of stress (such as closing their mouth) when approached by swimmers or boats. Boat strikes are still a real threat throughout their range, and the impact of unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAV, i.e., drones) is virtually unknown.  Similarly, people often assume that because basking sharks “don’t eat people”, it is perfectly safe to approach them.  This assumption is dangerously wrong, as basking sharks can leap out of the water unexpectedly, at the same speed as a great white, or thrash their tails when “spooked”.  We have seen footage on social media of people swimming too close to sharks, only to be nearly crushed by a breaching shark.  However, we cannot expect the average person to know their impact on all the wildlife they may encounter in their daily life, let alone those they may only encounter once in their lifetime.  

A basking shark breaches near Malin Head, Ireland.

Enter a Code of Conduct. Several years ago, a number of people asked the IBSG via social media for guidance on how to behave if they encountered a basking shark, which we were happy to provide.  We have since updated our Code of Conduct to reflect the new legal protection of basking sharks in Ireland in 2022, when they were added to the Wildlife Act (1976), and to include the expanding use of UAVs like drones. Even a voluntary, nonbinding Code of Conduct is useful, as it standardises expectations of human behavior.  One source of conflict we have seen is when one person assumes their action is harmless, while another assumes it is harmful.  Without a baseline to work from, it is difficult to mitigate such a conflict.  We offer our Code of Conduct as that baseline, which hopefully can become the “norm” of human-shark interactions. It is well-documented that if a person's friends and neighbours follow certain behaviours, they are more likely to join in. We hope to see our Code of Conduct become a sort of positive peer-pressure.  

Our Code of Conduct follows the precautionary principle, or erring on the side of caution in the face of uncertainty, as there is little research of the impact of recreational activities on basking sharks.  Out of concern for this, we have reached out to the Irish Government and requested that they perform controlled exposure research on tagged sharks with swimmers, boats, and even drones to collect empirical data on their impact.  

We also feel it is important to highlight that most people do not want to harm basking sharks. They simply under-estimate their potential (negative) impact. In accordance with best available scientific research, our Code of Conduct is not a list of prohibited actions, but instead tells people what to do in place of harmful behavior.  We want to provide guidance for you on how to reduce your own impact if you are lucky enough to encounter a basking shark.  

Please note that this Code of Conduct is now available on our “Downloads” page. It is freely available and we encourage people to share widely. 


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