The Basking shark may seem an exotic and mysterious creature to many people in Ireland today but it was a very familiar to coastal communities along the western seaboard of Ireland, from Counties Donegal to Cork. The basking shark Cetorhinus maximus was traditionally called the sunfish, which should not be confused with the ocean sunfish Mola mola, which has become increasingly abundant in Irish waters in recent years due to climate change. The basking shark was known in County Kerry as ainmhide na seolta 'monster with the sails' and liop an dá 'unweildy beast with two fins'. More generally in the west of Ireland it was called liabhán mór (signifying a great leviathan) or the most evocative liabhán chor gréine 'great fish of the sun'.
If you look at the old charts of the western seaboard you will see a bank about 30 miles west of North Connemara and west Mayo called 'The Sunfish Bank' at 11º12'W. This was where shark fishermen ventured, especially from the Ballyconnelly region of Connemara, in six-man open boat or galway hookers in the spring and early summer with hand-held harpoons to locate sharks. Once captured they would row back towing the shark behind them. Although the meat was used for food or fertiliser, it was the sharks liver that was the valuable prize. Basking shark liver may weigh up to one-third of the weight of the animal and is rich in squalene. This oil was used for dressing wounds, preserving wood and in manufacturing processes but most commonly for lighting. In 1742 the street lights of Galway and Waterford were lit with sunfish or basking shark oil.
The best documented basking shark fishery was off Achill Island, Co Mayo. Basking sharks were typically netted off Keem Bay on the west of the island. The nets were spread at right angles to the shore to trap the sharks and a lookout alerted the fishers who rowed around in their currachs and killed the shark with a jab of a lance behind the head. Between 1950 and 1964, 9000 sharks were killed with a record 1,808 killed in 1952 alone. From 1955 the catch declined and the fishery closed in 1975 after 12,342 sharks had been killed. The collapse of this fishery suggested a local stock had been over-fished. Basking sharks were continued to be fished commercially by Norwegian vessels off Co Waterford up to 1986 when 2,465 sharks were killed, with boats often seen in the port of Dunmore East.
Dr Simon Berrow
Merchants Quay, Kilrush, Co Clare
Please submit any basking shark sightings to the IWDG, Merchants Quay, Kilrush, Co Clare or on-line at www.iwdg.ie
Basking Shark - Great fish of the Sun
Biology of the Basking Shark
Basking Shark Sighting Schemes
Basking shark Conservation