Thought UK waters were free from sharks? Think again. In fact, over 30 shark species can be found along the British coastline, amongst them some of the largest, fastest, rarest and oddest sharks on the planet. Sadly, over half of these magnificent species are under threat—but there are plenty of ways in which marine wildlife lovers can help save them.
At least 21 shark species are thought to permanently reside around the coast of Britain, including the Smallspotted Catshark and the Porbeagle Shark. Others, such as the Blue Shark or Shortfin Mako migrate to British waters during summertime, while a few species, such as the Smooth Hammerhead and Frilled Shark are considered vagrants that only occasionally stray into our waters. At least 11 shark species, including the Black Dogfish and the Kitefin Shark are only found in deep water.
On top of this remarkable shark heritage, the UK is home to over 16 species of skate and ray—flat-bodied, cartilaginous fishes that are close relatives of sharks—including some of the largest species in the world, such as the Flapper Skate.
‘We have a phenomenal range and fantastic biodiversity of coastal and deepwater species of shark, skate and ray and more could be discovered as science and research goes further,’ enthuses Ali Hood, Conservation Director of The Shark Trust.
Despite being superbly adapted to their marine environment, many of our sharks, skates and rays are in decline. Worldwide, a quarter of sharks, skates and rays are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, while over 50% of the UK’s sharks are in danger.
A marine ecosystem depleted of some of its main apex predators is not a healthy one. Just like wolves and lions on land, many sharks perform a key role in balancing the populations of other species, while others are important links in the food chain. However, sharks’ slow growth rate, late maturity and few offspring leaves them extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
The main threat facing sharks, skates and rays is unregulated and unsustainable fishing. Shark fisheries are big business: a whopping 766,000 tonnes of shark was landed in 2011, worth an estimated value of US$598 million. The UK has a long history of shark fishing dating back centuries and the fish was once commonly eaten in schools, hospitals and institutions due to its lack of bones. Today, sharks are prized in many countries for their fins, meat, liver oil, cartilage and skins. The cruel practice of finning, in which a shark’s fin is cut off and the body discarded at sea, has grown in line with the rise in popularity of the Chinese delicacy, shark fin soup. Despite being endangered, some British species such as the Porbeagle Shark and the Shortfin Mako are highly prized for their meat, which is often sold as steaks and tastes similar to tuna or swordfish.
The good news, according to Ali, is that the tide is starting to turn in sharks’ favour thanks to the introduction of new fishing regulations, together with decades of campaigning by marine conservation NGOs.
‘Things have dramatically improved over the last 10 to 15 years,’ she says. ‘Solid management systems have been introduced placing strict quotas on fishing levels for some species, fishing bans of other species and fishing restrictions within shark migration areas.’
Sadly, these measures do not offer protection to all vulnerable shark species, nor do they prevent sharks from getting inadvertently caught and killed in bycatch. Historically, sharks have often been caught and discarded by fisheries targeting other fish species. Ironically, the recent movement to ban the wasteful practice of discarding unwanted fish back into the sea has had a negative impact on shark populations. Unlike bony fish, sharks have a cartilaginous skeleton, which gives them greater flexibility, while their lack of a swim bladder allows them to cope better with changes in pressure, which combined with their tough outer skin gives them a much better chance of survival following discard.
Shark conservationists have been tackling the issue by working with the fishing industry to reduce the chances of sharks becoming the victims of bycatch in the first place, as well as encouraging the uptake of methods that give unintentionally caught sharks the best possible chance of survival. ‘It is hard to prevent sharks getting caught,’ regrets Ali, ‘but there is a big distinction between what is caught and what is landed’.
Despite this good progress, there are no catch limits or management systems of any sort to protect several British species: the Blue Shark, Shorfin Mako, Tope, smoothhounds and catsharks—an issue that the Shark Trust and its partners are working to address through the No Limits, No Future campaign.
Working with fisheries is only one element of shark conservation; changing public perception of sharks is also critical. Being eaten by a shark is one of our biggest, primal fears, but the reality is that for every human death from a shark attack in the world, around 10 million sharks are killed by man. In England, according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), there have been just two unprovoked shark attacks on humans since 1847, neither of which proved fatal.
‘The first challenge to changing British public attitudes is getting people to understand that sharks are a natural part of our marine biodiversity. Instead of being concerned when we hear about a shark sighting anywhere in the world we should be concerned that there aren’t more shark sightings,’ insists Ali.
In helping to change views and champion the importance of shark conservation, one species is playing an invaluable role—the Basking Shark. Measuring up to 12 metres and weighing up to seven tonnes, the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) is the world’s second largest fish after the Whale Shark. These gentle giants are passive filter feeders, swimming with their massive mouths wide open and straining 2,000 tons of water per hour through their pharynxes for plankton.
But what is really remarkable is that these sharks have managed to make the unprecedented leap from commercially targeted fish to charismatic wildlife attraction. Up until the mid-1990s basking sharks were hunted in British waters for their liver oil, meat and fins, causing their populations to decline dramatically. Then, in 1998 the species received protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, followed by protection under European and international law. Nowadays, holidaymakers flock to the Isle of Man, the Hebrides and South West England each summer in the hopes of catching a glimpse of these astounding leviathans of the sea, which migrate to our coastal waters in large shivers during May to October to feed.
‘The basking shark has been great for the development of ecotourism and is providing a strong source of alternative income for coastal communities,’ says Ali. ‘It is an incredible species to have visiting our coastlines annually and for people to have a chance of seeing from a cliff or boat without having to go diving.’
How to help sharks
- Submit your basking shark sightings and photos to the Shark Trust’s Shark Sightings Database
- Support the Shark Trust’s No Limits campaign and sign the petition to stop uncontrolled shark fishing of vulnerable species
- Avoid shark meat on restaurant menus if you’re unsure of the species; for example, the critically endangered Spiny Dogfish often appears as ‘rock salmon’
- Join the Great Eggcase Hunt by searching for empty shark eggcases (or mermaid’s purses), identifying and recording your findings
- Adopt a shark and receive an information pack on your favourite shark species while supporting shark conservation for a one-off payment of £20.
Ali is hoping that a bit of the basking shark’s charisma will rub off onto other vulnerable British shark, skate and ray species. The trouble is that, unlike the basking shark, many of our other endangered sharks are only found in open or deep water, making them harder for the public to engage with. To be in with a chance of seeing one of these species in the wild, shark diving or cage diving with a reputable ecotourism provider are probably the only options. Nevertheless, people can still find out more about the amazing diversity of British sharks through visiting an aquarium, supporting a marine conservation NGO or even just strolling along the beach in search of shark egg cases.
‘Right now, we need to focus on other, less charismatic and more elusive sharks,’ says Ali. ‘It would be fantastic if the basking shark acted as an ambassador for other species of threatened shark, skate and ray found in our waters.’
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