Basking sharks threatened by upsurge in sightseers

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The Independent Online

A conservation group is calling for "highly protected" marine reserves to be set up along the British coastline to help save basking sharks from overzealous sightseers.

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) is reacting to a surge in sightings of the giant plankton eaters which have led to a number of the creatures being maimed and killed.

One shark was reported to have died last week after being caught in nets and another had two fins sliced off by a speedboat propeller as crowds headed out to sea following sightings off the Cornish coast.

Publicity around basking sharks increased after one was mistaken for a great white, with images of a dorsal fin published in a national newspaper under the headline "JAWS". Richard Harrington, a spokesman for the MCS, said: "This year we have had a particularly large number of sightings – there were an amazing 450 in one day recently – and the species is suffering from its new status as a tourist attraction.

"Naive but deliberate disturbance from the public is an increasing threat. We have received reports of sharks being surrounded by speedboats, or approached too close. Collisions with boats are not unusual, as a feeding shark will not necessarily take evasive action.

"We would like to establish a network of highly protected marine reserves up and down the coastline to help put a stop to these incidents."

Last month 18 basking sharks were spotted off the Cornish coast in just two hours. They visit the UK shores in their thousands each summer, between May and September, to feed off plankton on the water's surface.

There is only one fully protected area in British waters, a remote part of the Bristol Channel. The proposed controlled areas would see people banned from coming within 100 metres of the sharks. Other large marine wildlife, including dolphins and leatherback turtles, would also be protected. Fishing, or the removal of any wildlife from the water, would be banned. Those who flouted the rules would face prosecution. Among the areas likely to be designated are the Cornish coast, the Isle of Man and the Western Isles.

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