Summer seems to have finally arrived, and many people are enjoying the temporary warmth of the British coastlines. Unfortunately, this has been accompanied by a plethora of Jaws-inspired shark sightings and lurid newspaper articles.
I’m here to tell you to ignore those headlines. Sharks in the British Isles are something to be cherished, not feared.
Every year newspapers sensationalise shark sightings, taking every opportunity to sell more papers and have fleeting fame with viral articles. While our fascination with sharks is undeniable, whether it is from admiration or fearfulness, many of these articles are misrepresenting sharks and creating unnecessary panic among beachgoers.
UK waters are home to many more beautiful and varied sharks than you might initially think. Ranging from the smaller species such as lesser-spotted catsharks and the glow in the dark velvet belly lantern sharks, all the way through to the huge basking sharks and even sometimes greenland sharks, about 40 species can be found around the British Isles.
This includes year-round residents such as smoothhounds, or black mouth catsharks, but also seasonal visitors. During the summer months, warming waters bring in fish such as mackerel and sprat as they migrate in from southerly or offshore waters to feed. Migratory blue, mako and thresher sharks often follow this temporary flux of smaller fish, all visiting local waters to feed within these summer festivals of fish.
The ‘Jaws of Cornwall’ probably doesn’t exist
Every year without fail, claims start appearing that a huge great white shark has been seen somewhere near the UK. This poster species is occasionally spotted in Europe, but to date there have been no confirmed sightings or catches in the UK. Considering the huge amount of fishing that occurs off British shores, if the island did have regular visits from white shark, I’m sure we would have seen one by now.
Large shark sightings can usually be attributed to a few species. Most tend to be the bus-sized basking shark. This leviathan of a shark is completely harmless though. Being a filter feeder, it can often be seen swimming around Cornwall or the Hebrides with its mouth wide open, hoovering up sudden blooms of tiny animals such as plankton.
Close relatives porbeagle and mako sharks are also often misidentified as white sharks. While similar in shape to the untrained eye, these sharks have more of a taste for fast swimming fish and squid.
A huge proportion of Britain’s shark diversity will unfortunately go almost entirely unseen. These are the wonderfully alien deep-sea sharks and the British Isles have an astonishing variety of them. There are about 26 species of deep-sea shark that live in waters from 500 metres down to 2,500 metres and can be found in the deep-water off the west coast of Scotland and Ireland.
Despite the incredible number of different shark species in British waters, there has never once been a fatal “attack” on humans. Although, in 1937, a basking shark capsized a boat in Kintyre, Scotland, causing all three crew members to drown. But the rare bites that have been documented are often sustained by recreational fishermen while trying to tackle sharks onto their boats.
Humans pose a much greater threat to sharks than they do to us. A recent study in the North Sea found that high levels of fishing, climate changes and habitat destruction have likely caused significant changes in shark numbers over the past century. Additionally, severe declines in other larger species such as the porbeagle and mako sharks have also been blamed on heavy unregulated fishing.
Although many fisheries are required to adhere to strict fishing quotas, there are currently no annual limits for certain species of European sharks. About a hundred millions sharks are killed globally every year, often targeted for their fins which are then sold to Asian markets for shark fin soup. In recent years, as other fish stocks have declined, shark meat is increasingly making its way on to the market though.
Unless science-based regulations are implemented in the near future, UK shark sightings, while already rare, may disappear altogether. So if you do see a shark in British waters this summer, don’t panic – you just got lucky.