Up to 20 per cent of the global population of the world’s second largest fish, the basking shark, come to Irish waters annually and should be a protected species, the Dáil has heard.
Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore said basking sharks are endangered, are at very high risk of extinction in the wild and should be afforded "the same protections we afford our whales and dolphins".
They have been a protected species in UK waters since 1998 but despite their endangered status they are not a protected species under Irish national marine or conservation legislation, she said.
“The Government must list this species as protected and encourage its protection to the fullest extent possible.”
Ms Whitmore, a marine biologist, was speaking as she introduced her first piece of legislation, the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill. The legislation amends the Wildlife Act to include the basking shark on the schedule of animals it is illegal to injure, disturb or harass.
The basking shark is known in Irish as liamhán mór gréine – the great fish of the sun. “We have a deep cultural connection to this animal and it is often a symbol of our indigenous maritime life.”
The Wicklow TD said that the basking shark “continues to face a number of key threats, including boat strikes, harassment by recreational boat users and habitat alteration due to development of large-scale infrastructure”.
They were first classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list in 2018. They had previously been classified as vulnerable but they are now endangered, said Ms Whitmore.
She pointed out that of the eight known coastal surface “hot spots” for the shark in the northeast Atlantic, five are located off Cork, Kerry, Clare, Mayo and Donegal.
She described her Bill as a “simple legislative change but it could be a matter of life and death for basking sharks. We need to treasure our natural heritage, our biodiversity and our own iconic species, and afford basking sharks the same protections that other countries afford them.”