Legal protection for endangered basking sharks a ‘game-changer’

Second-largest living fish on planet to become ‘protected wild animal’ under Ireland’s Wildlife Act

Historic legal protection for thousands of endangered basking sharks which comes into effect on Monday is a “game-changer” for the globally significant population in Irish waters, campaigners have said.

From midnight on Sunday, the second-largest living fish on the planet will for the first time become a “protected wild animal” under Ireland’s Wildlife Act after years of lobbying ministers to bring them under the legislation.

For centuries, the sharks were prized by hunters and farmers off the west coast for their lucrative liver oil, which powered street lamps for a time, depleting their numbers to less than 10,000 in the north Atlantic, it is estimated.

Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan and Minister for the Marine Charlie McConalogue said it will now be an offence to hunt, injure or wilfully interfere with their breeding or resting places.

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Dr Simon Berrow, chief science officer and chief executive of Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG), said the enactment of the legislative change is “hugely significant” on a number of levels.

“We have been calling for legal protection of basking sharks since 2008,” he told The Irish Times.

“There has been protection in the UK and in Northern Ireland but not in the Republic. We have been through about three government ministers formally proposing this and justifying why it should be done, but it was always declined.

“So it is great that this is going through. Clearly, Ireland is globally important for basking sharks, so it is right and appropriate. We have an international obligation to protect them and their habitat.”

Dr Berrow, who also heads the Irish Basking Shark Group, said it is also the first time a fish has been included under the Wildlife Act, which “changes our relationship with them”.

Courting and breeding

“Before with fish, it was either we eat them or we don’t eat them. If we eat them, there is a quota on them, if we don’t then we just ignore them. This means we are now treating sharks as wildlife, and can apply the suite of wildlife regulations to them.

“It is a game-changer. There are other species [of fish] that are much more endangered – types of skate and ray, for example – and hopefully this will open the way for us to broaden out that legal protection.”

While sharks are not legally hunted anymore under existing EU protections, their habitats, courting and breeding can be disturbed by marine traffic – including ferries – as well as by offshore wind farms, underwater cable-laying and by being caught on fishing nets or ropes.

“There had never been an obligation to look after their habitat,” said Dr Berrow, who insisted “everyone should see a basking shark before they die, they are such amazing creatures”.

“But we need to do that responsibly and make sure we do not disturb them,” he added.

Basking sharks – the world’s second-largest fish after the whale shark – can grow to almost 8m in length. In Ireland, they are spotted during short-lived periods feeding and courting off Donegal, Clare, Kerry and Cork, from March through to July.

Most of their activity is hidden from view underwater, with Ireland one of the few countries – along with the Canadian province of Nova Scotia – where sightings are relatively regular.

While population estimates are difficult, it is believed there could be as few as 5,000 breeding basking sharks left on the planet, if not less. Hundreds, if not thousands, have been spotted in Ireland’s inshore waters.

Pointing to the country’s close association with the shark, Dr Berrow said they were part of the “subsistence and survival” of coastal communities for generations. Ireland’s first whaling station was in Inver, Co Donegal, while as recently as the 1960s up to 1,500 were being killed off Achill Head, Co Mayo, every year.

Morally right

“Ireland is more closely associated with basking sharks than any country worldwide,” said Dr Berrow.

“It is not just right that we do this for conservation, but it is right morally.

“This is just a first step. We need marine-protected areas established, especially for breeding and feeding areas. It is not right that they should be disturbed at such critically important stages of their life cycle.”

Dr Berrow said basking sharks, which feed on zoo plankton, are “long-lived, really slow-reproducing” fish which produce six offspring, meaning they “can’t take much over-exploitation”.

The basking shark is internationally classed as facing a high risk of extinction.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the species as endangered on its “red list” of globally threatened species, its status changing from vulnerable to endangered in 2019.

Mr Noonan said there is “an urgent responsibility on all of us to do everything we can to reverse that trend”.

“We are living in an age of mass extinction,” he said.

“By strengthening protections for the basking shark, Ireland will play its part in offering improved protection to an endangered species that depends on our territorial waters to survive and flourish.”s

Brian Hutton

Brian Hutton is a freelance journalist and Irish Times contributor