Basking sharks are strange creatures. These massive animals are the second largest fish in the world, second only to the whale shark. Yet like the whale shark, they are filter feeders, swimming slowly at the surface of the water catching plankton in its gaping maw. We know surprisingly little about these giant fish, even though we're good at killing them. Around 81,000 were killed between 1952 and 2004 mainly for their liver oil and fins. But after gaining protections under CITES, it seems that the species may be coming back.
UPI reports, "University [of Exeter] researchers, along with the Marine Conservation Society, Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Wave Action, analyzed 20 years of public sightings -- a total of 11,781 records -- and boat-based basking shark surveys to complete the largest study of its kind. Sightings from the 1980s through to the 2000s revealed an increase in the proportion of medium and large-sized animals, suggesting an increase in the number of older sharks."
Because basking sharks are migratory, the good news spotted in the UK translates to other areas of the world. It seems that this long term protection could be turning the basking shark into a success story, although real success is still tenuous and it will take decades more to see if numbers will truly bounce back. The species is slow growing, and all sharks are still at risk, caught by the millions for their fins for shark fin soup or as bycatch in other fisheries.
"Our research shows that basking sharks could be recovering from the extensive hunting that took place in the 20th century," Exeter researcher Brendan Godley said. "Anyone who has had the experience of seeing a basking shark from our coastline will know what awe-inspiring creatures they are and our research suggests that more of us may be fortunate enough to see them in the future."