Ireland has an important historic association with the basking shark through the earliest-published references. The first being Williem Henry in 1739 and of more famous note a record from Thomas Pennant during his Tour of Scotland in 1772 “they inhabit most parts of the western coasts of the northern seas…. and on the coast of Ireland in the Bay of Ballyshannon”. There is also written and archaeological evidence of the establishment of a whale and shark fishery with a rendering plant built by Mr Thomas Nesbitt, the inventor of the first swivel gun in Donegal Bay in 1759 (McGonigle, 2008).
This seasonal fishery became an iconic symbol of indigenous maritime life on the western seaboard of Ireland (McNally, 1976). Its rich associations with Irish coastal heritage are represented in visual form by the film ‘Man of Arran’ and in oral form by the old Gaelic proverb ‘Chomh Sámh le Liamhán Gréine’, meaning as tranquil as a Basking Shark (Daltaí na Gaeilge, 2008). The Basking Shark as a resource has been subject to limited periods of intense target fishing. Donegal had its own dedicated basking shark fisheries mentioned above but the best-recorded basking shark fishery in the world is off the coast of Achill, Co. Mayo. This was, at its peak, the world’s largest basking shark fishery and caught a total of 9000 individuals between 1950 and 1964 (McNally, 1976).
The last records of target fishing of basking sharks in Irish and EU waters occurred in 2006 and were undertaken by ships from the Norwegian whaling fleet. The Norwegian fisheries, like the Irish, have a long historic relationship with the basking shark having started in the early 1700’s. Deck mounted harpoons were deployed in the early 1920’s and utilised until the fisheries closure in 2006. Norwegian catches peaked between the 1950’s and 1980’s with over 4000 sharks being landed in a good year. Post 1998 this fishery only amounted to an EU quota of 100 tonnes of basking shark liver, approximately 250-300 basking sharks (ICES WGEF Report, 2008) see figures 3&4. A single Scottish registered vessel target fished the basking shark in Scottish territorial waters and the western approaches adjacent to Inishowen until 1997 (Saunders, 2004).
The Basking shark was traditionally caught for its liver oil but with a steady decline in liver oil prices, it was the sharks large characteristic fins, which became a valuable asset in the Asian shark fin soup and ornamental markets. Prices were reported at US$ 1000- 2400 per shark at first sale in 2004 (Sims et al, 2005).
A small commercial fishery was instigated off the coast of California in the 1940’s and early 1950’s with limited success (Squire James L., 1990). To the North in British Colombian waters a Government sponsored eradication programme was initiated in the 1950’s due to the sharks habit of rolling and tangling its self in set drift nets. Sightings since then have been rare and usually of single sharks (CSAS, 2008). By-catch is still landed in New Zealand and distribution maps and rough population estimates have been established using mainly commercial fishing returns (New Zealand, NABIS 2008).