AWARE Week: Sharks of UK Waters

man standing on stone beside body of water during daytime
Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

For those of you that don’t know this week is AWARE Week, a week designated by Project AWARE to empower divers to take action to protect the underwater world. As a scuba diver – who is unable to actually get out and dive this week – I thought I’d use it as an excuse to indulge in my hobby a little and talk about one of my favourite things… sharks!

Poor misunderstood, maligned, sharks. Ecologically speaking the presence of sharks is usually a bloody good thing, yet they undeservedly get such a bad wrap. Jaws (and the wider media) has a lot to answer for! The reality is sharks kill less than 20 people annually, where as it’s estimated humans kill between 20 and 100 million sharks per year, either directly or indirectly via indiscriminate fishing activity. Thus an increasing number of sharks are becoming endangered due to human activities.

I’ve written about this briefly before but I am often met with reactions of surprise that there could be even the remotest possibility of sharks in UK waters. Well, actually, there are some 40 species of shark found in the UK at different times of year, and 21 of these species are permanent residents. And according to recent research from the University of Southampton we could be seeing several new species arrive as our waters warm due to climate change.

Included within this cohort of cartilaginous-ness are the second largest shark in the world, the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and the fastest shark on record, the shortfin mako (Isurus oxyrinchus). As well as the scary-looking porbeagle (Lamna nasus) and the majestic blue shark (Prionace glauca). The Shark Trust have produced a selection of excellent fact sheets and I.D. guides which are available for download.

The mainstream media undoubtedly need to take more responsibility for the way they portray sharks. Obviously the culture of fear around shark attacks is not a new phenomenon, but in 2018 and armed with all the science we now have, it’s really disappointing that this still happens. Just a few weeks ago a man was injured by a blue shark whilst fishing in the Irish Sea, this was reported by many outlets as a “shark attack” when in reality, it was a fishing accident – the shark had been caught and the man was bitten whilst getting the shark aboard the boat – something any pissed-off fish with teeth could have done!

The chances of being bitten by a shark here are slim to none, in fact there are no records of an unprovoked attack in UK waters ever. Globally, the three species deemed the most dangerous are the great white (Carcharodon carcharias), tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier), and bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas). Of these species, two (the bull and tiger) are warm-water species thus definitely do not occur in UK waters, and although our conditions are thought to be favourable for the great white, there have never been any recorded sightings here, according to the Shark Trust, the closest ever recorded was in the Bay of Biscay some 168 miles from Land’s End.

One of my favourite shark attack statistics is an old one that comes from the National Geographic and states that “In 1996, toilets injured 43,000 Americans a year. Sharks injured 13”. Nothing like a toilet injuries statistic to give a little perspective.

Ecotourism may pave the way for a less apprehensive more open-minded relationship with these magnificent creatures. Basking Shark Scotland run trips that depart from Oban to snorkel with and view the gentle giants, they also run research trips later in the year. The South-West is the “shark capital” of the UK and there are lots of activities where they may be encountered, including swimming with blue sharks off Cornwall. By doing what the experts say and always remembering to respect the animals and environment you are in there’s no reason tours like that can’t be safe and exciting. I have had the pleasure of seeing black-tip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus) and a manta ray (Manta birostris) in the Maldives, and they were some of the most amazing experiences I have ever had.

If you want to take some action, as well as the usual donate options, Project AWARE are currently running a petition, based on advice from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), to urge major fishing nations to prohibit the retention of the Atlantic shortfin mako, a species classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. You can also become a citizen scientist with the Shark Trust and participate in their Great Eggcase Hunt Project, empty eggcases can provide important information on the nursery grounds of species like the small-spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula), nursehound (Scyliorhinus stellaris), skates and rays.

I am yet to encounter sharks in person myself in the UK, but I can honestly say the fear of presence of sharks would never ever stop me getting in the water, in fact it’s more likely to make me get in! And if I am unlucky enough for one to get me… so be it – I’m encroaching on their world after all.

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