Shark-hunter claims great whites have colonised British waters

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The Independent Online
THE great white shark, the world's most fearsome sea predator, has moved into British coastal waters, according to experts on the notorious species, which had the starring role in the film Jaws.

Part of Italy's Adriatic coast was closed to swimmers last week, following an attack by a 20ft great white on a cabin cruiser. Marine biologists say global warming has affected the spread of the sharks and that they will soon become common in northern Europe.

Stan Massey, a Glaswegian boat skipper who has been noting shark-related incidents for more than a decade, believes the great white is already here. Vic Sampson, a London-based shark-hunter who has captured more great whites on rod and line than anyone alive, agrees. Remote areas around the Hebrides fulfil all the criteria for a great white habitat, he says. Sampson has caught more than 20 white pointers, also known as "white death", including one estimated at 2,500lb, the third largest fish ever taken on angling tackle.

Mr Massey has records of numerous possible sightings in two areas of the Hebrides. "People say it's ridiculous to suggest that Scotland has great whites," he said, "but the whites off south California were only discovered a few years ago by chance, and the same goes for the great whites off South Island, New Zealand, discovered around 1986. I am absolutely certain that a concentrated effort on [the Hebrides] would find great whites."

The great white is not a creature of warm seas. It likes temperate to cold water, between 13C and17C. The west coast of Scotland, under the influence of the Gulf Stream, has temperatures of 14C-16C from August to October.

The main factor, however, is a ready supply of food. Great whites prefer seals to fish, or even humans, despite the impression given in Jaws.

"Every seal and sea-lion colony in temperate to cold water areas has predation by large sharks. Why should Scotland be any different? We have the largest colonies of common seals in the world," said Mr Massey. "The area is extremely sparsely populated, and the only real fishing operations close to the seal colonies are for lobster. For most of the week, nobody is there, so nobody knows what is going on.

"Anglers are never in the area, nor tourists. Anyone seeing a seal or pup being attacked would put it down to killer whales, which are evident in late summer and autumn."

However, Alwyne Wheeler, former keeper of fishes at the Natural History Museum in London, and the UK's foremost fish scientist, is sceptical. "It is possible, but if you want people to believe you, you must supply the evidence. I won't believe it until I see the fish."

Mr Massey's theories have already proved true in the case of another shark, the porbeagle. "People laughed when I insisted that large porbeagle sharks lived in Scottish waters in winter. They are not laughing now." In March 1994 a 414lb porbeagle was caught. The following year, also in March, a world-record porbeagle of 507lb was captured.

Mr Massey admits that he hasn't seen a great white himself. "The area where they live is very inhospitable. A fishing trip there would need a month, and even then you would probably only be able to fish for six or seven days."

He had high hopes of making such a trip until the 52ft big-game boat he built developed serious engine trouble last year. It needed expensive repairs and was eventually sold.

"This really set me back," Mr Massey said. "But the great whites are out there. I reckon they will be very big ones, 3,000lb or more."

THE FOUR-TONNE EATING MACHINE

HOW BIG do great whites grow? There are plenty of documented cases weighing more than 5,000lb and most authorities accept that they could grow as large as 10,000lb (more than four tonnes). A 21ft shark from Cuba weighed 7,100lb. The British Museum has a great white that was supposed to be 36.5ft long, though its jaws are only the same size as a 16ft fish. The rod-caught record is 2,664lb, caught off Australia in 1959, but several larger fish have been landed by illegal methods with whale or seal meat as bait. Rod-and-line fishing for great whites is now banned off Australia and South Africa. This follows a gruesome trade in the jaws, which can fetch up to US$10,000 (pounds 6,000).

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