Britain’s basking shark is moving north

Sharks ‘moving north due to climate change’
Britain’s basking shark is moving north because of climate change, scientists believe.

The creature is the second biggest fish in the world and the largest wild visitor to regularly visit the UK.

Sightings of the sharks have increased by 65% in Scottish waters over the last four years while reports from South
West England – traditionally the hotspot of activity – have dropped by 66%.

Basking sharks arrived early in Scottish waters this year with more than three times the average number of sightings this May, according to the Marine Conservation Society’s Basking Shark Watch.

The 11 metre-long seven ton plankton-eating giant has now turned the west coast of Scotland into the best UK place for shark sightings.

The report suggests climate change and changes in the distribution of their plankton prey is sending the sharks north.

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, biodiversity policy officer of the MCS, said: “After 17 years of public participation Basking Shark Watch is now providing exciting insights into the large-scale and long-term movements of these spectacular creatures.

“The importance of our dataset is we can monitor changes in distribution of sharks over time. While our analysis continues the results so far indicate that Britain’s basking sharks may be responding to climate change.

“We already know rising sea temperatures are affecting the distribution of plankton in UK waters and may in fact be making Scottish seas more favourable for the sharks.”

Between 1987 and 2004, Basking Shark Watch received 6,511 reports on sightings of over 21,000 sharks from divers, fishermen, sailors and coastal walkers who recorded the sharks feeding, courting and even jumping clear out of the water (breaching).

The MCS Basking Shark Watch 1987-2004 report provides clear evidence of hotspots in UK waters where basking sharks are regularly spotted, including South West England; the Isle of Man; the Clyde Sea, Sea of the Hebrides, the Minches and Shetland in Scotland, as well as the approaches to Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland.

Thanks to campaigning by MCS and other organisations, basking sharks have been protected in UK waters since 1998, but basking sharks are migratory, and the report warns of the danger to NE Atlantic populations from overseas
shark fin fisheries that supply the market for shark fin soup.

In 2002, the UK government successfully listed the basking shark under CITES (Convention on Trade in Endangered Species) leading to the international regulation and monitoring of existing basking shark fisheries but MCS believes that greater protection is necessary under the Convention on Migratory Species.

Dr Solandt said: “Historically, basking shark populations are very vulnerable to shark fisheries, and they inevitably collapse even as a result of small-scale fishing activity.

“MCS believes that current shark fin fisheries are a significant threat for sharks and we are calling for full protection of basking sharks throughout their range under the Convention on Migratory Species.”

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