Why do so many sharks like the Sea of the Hebrides?

More sharks tracked in the proposed Sea of the Hebrides Marine Protected Area.

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and scientists at the University of Exeter are running a satellite tracking project of basking sharks off the west coast of Scotland. The research in the Sea of the Hebrides will help strengthen the case for protection of these amazing creatures in the area. Three basking sharks have been tagged by the University of Exeter’s Dr Matthew Witt in the proposed Sea of the Hebrides Nature Conservation Marine Protected Area (MPA), a globally important hotspot for basking sharks which is also proposed for minke whales. The tags, which are attached just below the dorsal fin, send signals to satellites while the shark feeds at the surface.

Tracking the sharks in this way will help us to better understand the range and behaviours of these threatened gentle giants.

Members of the public can also see them live on a map at www.mcsuk.org/url/baskertrack . One of the sharks has already travelled out of the Sea of Hebrides and is cruising south along the west coast of Ireland.

Stuart McMillan MSP for Greenock and Inverclyde, and Species Champion for the basking shark said: “The Basking Shark is another example of what can be found in the wonderful natural environment we have around Scotland’s coastline. It also shows that Scotland’s waters are home to some wonderful creatures. This friendly shark helps bring our waters to life and we are fortunate they have chosen our waters to live in.”

The information collected from this project will also be used as part of the Marine Conservation Society’s campaign to help secure the creation of the Sea of the Hebrides Marine Protected Area. The Scottish Government was originally scheduled to consult on this proposal, with the first tranche, in late 2013 but this has been repeatedly delayed.

Calum Duncan MCS Head of Conservation Scotland said, “We are delighted to be working with the University of Exeter in this exciting project. We know that the Sea of the Hebrides provides very important habitat for a whole range of species, including basking sharks. Whilst we firmly hoped that the Sea of the Hebrides MPA would have gone to consultation by now, twice postponed along with three other sites, we are confident the further evidence gathered with these tags will make the case to secure it even stronger. We urge the Scottish Government to start the consultation on this world-first basking shark MPA as soon as possible” .

This project adds to extensive research already carried out in the area by the University of Exeter and Scottish Natural Heritage, which has so far tracked over 60 basking sharks since 2012, the largest study of its kind in the world. The team had originally planned to attach this year’s tags to basking sharks in Cornish waters, but the number of sharks visiting seas off South West England in recent summers has been so low that they were unsuccessful.

Dr Matthew Witt of the University of Exeter said “The Sea of the Hebrides proposed MPA is home to hundreds of basking sharks each summer and so we decided to add these tags to our study to find out more about how these gentle giants are using this globally important area. So far our tracking study has revealed that these sharks travel as far as the Canary Islands, Spain and Portugal in the winter, however many reside in the offshore waters to the west of Ireland during this period, before returning to the Sea of the Hebrides the following spring and summer. It is important that Scotland protects this precious area for the future of the species.”

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Editors’ Notes

Marine Protected Areas The Marine Conservation Society established a dedicated Scotland conservation programme in April 2000. MCS in Scotland has been making the case for Scottish Marine Protected Areas ever since. This has involved helping to secure the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 with NGO partners in the Save Scottish Seas coalition, gathering data to support potential MPAs by co-ordinating the Seasearch citizen science project in Scotland, contributing to workshops to determine the possible MPAs to go to consultation in 2013 - including submitting seven proposed MPAs, four of which were included in the 30 MPAs announced in July 2014 - and being a core contributor to the LINK Save Scottish Seas #donttaketheP campaign for effective management measures in inshore MPAs and European marine Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). MCS in Scotland continues to work toward both securing further MPAs needed to help develop the network and ensuring both existing and future MPAs are adequately protected from damaging activities. Species Champions is an award-winning initiative run by Scottish Environment LINK, the forum for Scotland’s voluntary environment community, with over 35 member bodies, including the Marine conservation Society, representing a broad spectrum of environmental interests with the common goal of contributing to a more environmentally sustainable society.

See http://www.scotlink.org/work-areas/species-champions/ and @SpeciesChampion on Twitter.

Species Champions is supported by a Yorkshire and Clydesdale Bank Spirit of the Community Award.

Satellite tagging is an important and very informative part of wildlife research, providing us with a greater understanding of shark movement, behavior and habitat use.

Tags are attached with minimal interaction with the animal, using an extendable darting pole.

Each tag normally lasts in the region of three years and data will be added to a website, so that you will be able to track the sharks tagged on your trip.

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