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
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
. Telephone the society on 01624 801207 or take a look at their
web site: www.isle-of-man.com/projects/shark/index.htm
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
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
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.
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