A group of international scientists is marking world ocean day by calling for legal protection of the basking shark in Irish waters.
Ireland has a global responsibility to protect the world’s second largest shark and fish – known as Liabhán chor gréine, or the “great fish of the sun” – the scientists state.
In an open letter appealing to the Government, the scientists explain that Irish coastal waters are “one of the few places globally” where basking sharks “regularly and predictably occur on the surface close to shore”.
“This surface swimming behaviour is the root of its deep cultural connections with western Irish coastal and island communities,” the scientists say.
The number of breeding individuals has been estimated at approximately 8,000-10,000 worldwide, the majority of which are in the north-east Atlantic.
The scientists believe section 23 of the Wildlife Act should be amended to protect the endangered species.
They explain that emerging scientific evidence indicates Irish territorial waters host a large proportion of the global population, yet Ireland is “one of the few remaining nations in the north-east Atlantic that have not provided domestic legal protection” for them.
"While there is a moratorium on deliberately fishing for or landing the basking shark, significant challenges remain,” they state.
Basking sharks were hunted by the Irish whaling industry in the early 18th century, including off Achill, Co. Mayo, where thousands of sharks were caught and processed for their liver oil until the 1970s.
"It may be a surprise for some to hear that it was legal to fish for the basking shark in Irish waters until 2001 and not prohibited in all EU waters until 2006,”the scientists say.
"Due to these unsustainable practices the shark is now classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered in the northeast Atlantic,” they state.
The basking shark was added to the Convention on Trade In Endangered Species (CITES) in 2003 and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) in 2005.
The scientists have initiated a petition to back their call. Social Democrat TD for Wicklow Dr Jennifer Whitmore has initiated a bill in the Dáil seeking to amend the Wildlife Act to protect the species.
Irish Basking Shark Group founding member Dr Emmett Johnston said “we are privileged to have such a wonderful animal frequenting our waters, which are some of the most important globally for this endangered species”.
“The scientific community have given their full support to list the basking shark under Section 23 of the Wildlife Act, now is the right time to protect them and their habitats.”
Signatories with Dr Johnston include fellow basking shark group founding member Dr Simon Berrow, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology ; Dr. Phillip Doherty, University of Exeter; Dr Kevin Flannery, Irish Elasmobranch Group; Pádraic Fogarty, Irish Wildlife Trust; Sarah Fowler, European Elasmobranch Group; Chelsea Grey, Dr Paul Mayo, Dr Donal Griffin, Alex McInturf, Heather Vance and Dr Natasha Phillips of the Irish Basking Shark Group; Jackie and Graham Hall, members of Manx Basking Shark Watch.
Other signatories are Dr Lauren Hartny-Mills, Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust; Ali Hood, Shark Trust UK; Dr Jonathan Houghton, Queens University Belfast; Dr Peter Klimley, University of California, USA; Heidi McIlvenny, Ulster Wildlife Trust ; Dr. Paul Mensink, Western University, Canada; Dr Nicholas L. Payne, Trinity College Dublin; Professor David Sims, Marine Biological Association of the UK; Padraig Whooley, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group; and Dr. Matthew Witt of the University of Exeter.