In search of the Basking Shark

In search of the Basking Shark

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Sailor, writer and photographer and a long-term Marine Conservation Society supporter Colin Speedie worked for many years leading marine life surveys aboard yachts around Britain. He’s also passionate about basking sharks…

The waters around the British Isles are home to a truly impressive array of spectacular marine life, but one stands out above all – the basking shark. Latest research shows that the second largest fish in the world spends far more of its time in British waters than scientists had previously imagined. More and more the message is being driven home that this is ‘our shark’!

But the basking shark nearly didn’t make it to the 21st century at all…

Hunting over the centuries throughout the North-East Atlantic threatened to eliminate the basking shark from the whole region, let alone our home waters. During the second half of the 20th century perhaps 100,000 sharks were taken by hunters from Norway, Ireland and Scotland, depleting stocks drastically.

It’s worth taking a step back and imagining just what a risky undertaking basking shark hunting was in the 1700s, when the first records appear. Given the sheer size of the shark (they can reach up to 11m long) and its latent power, tackling such a creature with hand-held harpoons from small open boats seems nothing short of suicidal, and indeed, lives were lost.

Yet despite the risks there was never a shortage of men willing to join the shark hunting boats, not only for the financial rewards, but also for the kudos that being a crew member of a shark boat generated in the remote fishing villages of the west of Ireland and the Hebrides. The main prize that drove the hunt was liver oil, for use in the small lamps that were used to light the tiny coastal blackhouses.

The small-scale, opportunistic hunt for lamp oil for this purpose never threatened populations, but as demand and prices increased from further afield – at one time the streets of Galway, Dublin and Waterford were lit with a mix of shark oil and rape seed oil – the hunt was scaled up, and the oil became a highly valuable commodity.

When alternative fuels such as paraffin became more widely available, the hunt waxed and waned, but in the aftermath of World War II, basking shark oil was in huge demand again. This bonanza brought forth several ex-servicemen who made and lost fortunes on the ever-risky pursuit of the shark on the west coast of Scotland. But success eluded them all, a fatal combination of hubris, bad weather and falling prices proving to be an impossible barrier to success.

Which could not be said of their highly efficient Norwegian counterparts, who roamed the North-East Atlantic region killing sharks with the ease you would expect from generations of whalers and shark hunters. The same was true of the Irish hunters of Achill Island, who conceived of an innovative means of ring netting the sharks at Keem Bay, with deadly effect. At its peak in the early 1950s the Achill Island fishery averaged an output of around 250 tons of oil per year, producing more in one year than the whole Scottish fishery generated during its entire period of operation.

It couldn’t last. Steadily but rapidly the catch declined across the region. Declining prices for the oil didn’t help, although the developing market for fins offset that loss. The fundamental and insurmountable problem posed by the slow reproductive capacity of the species was largely to blame for the collapse of the fisheries. The hunters had effectively reduced the population so drastically that numbers were a fraction of what they had been, even at the best sites.

Hope for the future

By the early 1980s the nascent marine conservation movement was taking an interest in the basking shark, notably in Britain. When I joined the then newly launched Marine Conservation Society it was largely in response to the interest being shown by MCS in the basking shark, an interest that would eventually become one of the great success stories of the marine conservation world.

The dominoes fell one by one – hunting was eventually banned in Britain in 1998, and since then further notable successes have been achieved, all of which have left the basking shark as one of the world’s most highly protected shark species.

But still the search for conservation answers goes on. New technologies such as satellite tracking have allowed previously unimaginable access to the hidden life of the basking shark and enabled scientists to understand the ecology and distribution of the species in astonishing depth. MCS remains actively involved, of course, in the field and in the political halls where the decisions are often taken on which species may survive – or may not.

So if you ever think that marine conservation can’t work, think again. When the news seems bad for marine life and you wonder whether it will ever get better, just remember that you can visit many of the farther flung corners of the British Isles at the right time of the year and have a good chance of seeing a basking shark, one of the great wonders of the marine world. And that may well be because generations of people got behind a campaign with the Marine Conservation Society to safeguard this iconic creature. It can be an uphill battle at times – but it’s always worth it.

A Sea Monster’s Tale – in Search of the Basking Shark by Colin Speedie (hb, £17.95) is out now, published by
Wild Nature Press.

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