One of the most globally endangered shark species has been granted protected status in Ireland after years of campaigning by biodiversity experts.
Heritage Minister Malcolm Noonan and Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue announced that basking sharks will now be shielded in law from hunting, injury, or interference with their habitat under the 1976 Wildlife Act.
Hundreds of the huge docile creatures visit Irish coastal waters each year and survive on a diet of plankton and other microscopic life. The sharks, which can measure up to 8m long and weigh over 5,000kg, are often filmed momentarily breaking the surface.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), although the basking shark is closely related to the deadly great white shark, it has tiny single cusped teeth and is harmless to humans.
The WWF says that despite not being threatened with immediate extinction, because of their slow growth, late maturity, and the small numbers of young born after a long pregnancy, basking sharks are highly vulnerable to over-exploitation, and recovery from depletion is very slow.
Basking sharks have been exploited in targeted fisheries for many years, and some populations do not appear to have recovered even decades after fishing operations have ended, the WWF says.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the basking shark as ‘endangered’ on its Red List of globally threatened species, with its status changing from Vulnerable to Endangered globally in 2019.
Mr Noonan said: "We are living in an age of mass extinction. There is an urgent responsibility on all of us to do everything we can to reverse that trend. By strengthening protections for the basking shark, Ireland will play its part in offering improved protection to an endangered species that depend on our territorial waters to survive and flourish.
“This measure is a first step in additional protections for vulnerable species in Ireland. My department is working to further strengthen our wildlife laws to ensure that natural habitats are protected and restored, and to provide a better balance of safeguards for both marine and terrestrial wildlife.”
Mr McConalogue said Irish waters constitute one of the most important international regions for the basking shark.
"By strengthening protections, we are helping this iconic animal thrive in the seas around Ireland," he added.
In conjunction with the new legal status, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is currently preparing a code of conduct for the wildlife watching industry when it comes to interaction with the basking shark in Irish waters.