Hunting the shark

Last year the basking shark was given full protection in UK waters. So why has Norway got permission to kill up to 300 of these gentle beasts around Britain each year? Peter Rowlands reports

Big mouth: basking shark feeding on plankton at the surface.
Photograph by Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch

Last year the basking shark was given full protection in UK waters under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. After more than ten years of lobbying by conservation groups, this seemed to be a great success. But in reality this only protects basking sharks within 12 nautical miles of British shores. Basking sharks are still hunted within 200 miles of our coastline by the Norwegians. They have an agreement with the European Community which allows them to take a quota of 100 tonnes of basking shark livers (approximately 250-300 sharks) in exchange for a quota of white fish taken from Norwegian waters by UK fishermen.

The primary value of a basking shark carcass is squalene, an oil which is found in its liver. The liver of a basking shark accounts for up to 25 per cent of its overall weight (a 9m-long basking shark can weigh up to 4,000kg) and oil makes up 75 per cent of the weight of the liver. So an average-sized shark contains about 400-500kg of oil. Despite a drop in demand for squalene due to the production of cheaper alternatives, the market for shark fins in the Far East has meant that basking sharks are still a desirable catch. One kilo of shark fin is priced at US$600-700, with a whole set of basking shark fins fetching up to US$1,600.

'The market for shark fins in the Far East has meant that basking sharks are still a desirable catch'

Basking sharks have been hunted for centuries in Europe and North America. Tradtionally the sharks were fully utilised; squalene was used for lighting, the flesh was eaten and the hides tanned. One of the largest fisheries was on Achill Island off the west coast of Ireland. The fishery would process up to 1,800 basking sharks each year, but this level could not be sustained and it shut down at the end of the 19th century, only to reopen in 1941 when the basking shark population was back up to levels which made fishing viable again. The numbers of sharks being caught declined again and the fishery shut for the last time in 1975. A Scottish operation, headed by Howard McCrindle (see page 68), closed in 1997.

The demise of British-based basking shark fisheries has not stopped other countries from continuing to hunt them, however - they are still hunted by the Norwegians, Portugese, Chinese and Japanese. And unfortunately for the basking shark, recent research has suggested that the liver oil may have anti-carcinogenic properties. Sharks do not develop cancer, and scientists are hoping to isolate the substance that prevents it from developing. Squalene is also used in cosmetics such as moisturisers. Although there are substitutes that can be used, some cosmetic manufacturers claim that substitutes are not as effective as squalene. Shark oil is also sold in capsule form as a vitamin substitute.

photograph: Mike Glover

Campaigning for the protection of basking sharks

The Basking Shark Society, which is based on the Isle of Man, was founded by Ken Watterson. Captivated by basking sharks from the age of five, he has dedicated all his spare time to gaining a greater understanding of these large marine creatures.

He has made use of the local and tourist community to be his eyes and ears, reporting every basking shark sighting. His Basking Shark Aware Line is so prominent that it is supported by shore-based volunteers and by the fishing, boating and coastguard communities.

One alarming result of his information-gathering shows that the basking shark population around the Isle of Man in 1996 was just 15 per cent of that in 1989.
. Telephone the society on 01624 801207 or take a look at their web site:

The Marine Conservation Society has collected sightings and information for more than ten years to help get the 1998 protection order for basking sharks. Now, the society is planning a campaign to end the Norwegian quota. It has set up observation schemes (see above), and visual and satellite tagging to find out more about basking sharks: their habits, feeding (below, the plankton they feed on), movements, breeding, populations and behaviour.
. Contact the Marine Conservation Society on 01989 566017 to find out more.

Photograph: Howard Hall

The Shark Trust has also been campaigning to get protection for the basking shark. The most recent aspect of its campaign is aimed at getting the basking shark on a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appendix II listing. This would not incur a ban on trade but would require exporting countries to ensure that the trade is not detrimental to the survival of the species.
. Phone Sarah Fowler on 01635 551150 to find out how you can help.

About basking sharks

Photograph: Howard Hall

In May each year basking sharks (Cetorhinus maximus), the second largest fish in the sea, congregate off the British coast and feed in the plankton-rich waters.

Their nearest evolutionary relative is the great white shark. Basking sharks are easily spotted as they swim open-mouthed close to the surface of the water, through patches of zooplankton and phytoplankton to filter feed. They have ten large gill slits, five of which almost encircle each side of the head. The slits are lined with thousands of gill rakers. This perfect design has remained the same for millions of years and allows basking sharks to filter up to 330,000 gallons of water per hour. Their typical feeding pattern is to locate thick patches of plankton and then swim through them open-mouthed for up to a minute, before closing to swallow the collected contents which include microscopic crustaceans and fish eggs.

They stay around the coast as long as the plankton remains plentiful and then, as quickly as they appeared, they disappear for the next eight months or so. There are two theories as to why this occurs: either that they go into deeper water to hibernate or that they have a change of diet in much deeper waters.

Nothing is known about their breeding habits, how their young is cared for or exactly where they go when they disappear.

In order to find out more about their movements, there are several bodies currently carrying out research: Ken Watterson and The Basking Shark Project (see previous page), the Marine Conservation Society, the Shark Trust and Dr David Sims of Plymouth University, who has spent the last three years with his team observing sharks and making frequent records of their position, plankton density and type, and the sharks' behaviour.

The last British basking shark fisherman
Bloody business: clockwise from top left, McCrindle using a gunpowder harpoon to kill the shark; checking to see the size of the catch; a shark's tail is lassoed to aid getting it into the boat; chopping the body up into manageable pieces; a basking shark is hoisted on to shore; carcass of a basking shark; McCrindle prepares to cut the shark. Photographs by Tony Crabtree

Howard McCrindle, 48, lives on the Isle of Cumbrae in Scotland, and was the last British basking shark fisherman. He started fishing for basking sharks in 1982, stopping in 1997 when the value of liver oil made hunting the sharks economically unviable. Initially he used nets to catch the sharks, but when he received his gunpowder licence he was able to use a harpoon, killing 122 sharks in 1983 alone.

He explains that once a basking shark is harpooned, it tries to escape by diving to deeper waters, but it is winched to the boat, where the tail is lassoed and the backbone cut to expedite death. The shark is then cut into manageable pieces to be sold, with the liver and fins sent abroad to be processed.

McCrindle has no illusions about this form of fishing, which he readily admits was a grizzly affair, but he maintains he had a living to earn and that was precisely what he was doing - more than one third of his income came from basking sharks.

He would like a quota of 20 sharks to be allowed per year, as he believes that the numbers of basking sharks are as high as they ever were. Seeing it as evidence that supports his theory, he was delighted to hear the reports of more than 500 sharks off the Cornish coast in 1998.

McCrindle now fishes for prawns.

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