By Heidi Happonen, Photos courtesy of Dr. Alexandra G. McInturf
Dr. Alexandra (Alex) G. McInturf is a postdoctoral fellow with the Big Fish Lab at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) in Newport, Oregon and recently was part of a groundbreaking conservation success story.
Like so many efforts to advance legal protections for endangered species, the science was key to shining a light on declining numbers of basking sharks. But it was how that science informed education and outreach efforts that finally led to the decision to name the basking shark as the first fish species to be protected by the nation of Ireland.
As a species, the basking shark occupies the top of a very small food chain because they eat plankton. According to McInturf, this means that their removal likely doesn’t have a top-down effect on plankton, but they are an indicator species.
“If they are around, it shows that the ecosystem is probably healthy. But if they aren’t, it’s potentially indicative of a larger issue,” she added.
The basking shark is a symbolic animal in Ireland which is the among largest places for basking sharks in the world, with the potential to attract significant ecotourism dollars to the region. However, in recent years, the shark has not been showing up with regularity in the same numbers it had in the past.
The basking shark is so named because they are a surprisingly buoyant animal for its size – upwards of 20 feet – and will be found quite literally “basking” in the sun on the surface of waters as it feeds. The second largest fish in the world, next to the whale shark, basking sharks are one of only three filter-feeding sharks and are known to congregate on the south side of the Great Blasket Island and elsewhere along the south and west coasts of Ireland generally between May and October, making it an icon of the nation.
McInturf was part of an international research team that helped inform the scientific data that led to this historic distinction. For the past four years, she has been the co-coordinator of the Irish Basking Shark Group (IBSG)—an organization of international researchers and educators focused on conservation, research, and education.
The research was made especially difficult because it was interrupted by the pandemic, however McInturf and her cohorts were able to secure funding to continue tagging efforts that were launched prior to the pandemic. These data, in addition to sightings reports from the Irish public, demonstrated a likely decline in population that led to the decision to grant them legal protection under the Wildlife Act in Ireland.
As she continues her research with this group, McInturf hopes to further understand some of the behavioral nuances of the species.
“There are so many questions we still have about basking sharks,” McInturf added. “Are they social? Are they coming to Ireland because other sharks are there? Is it a mating thing? They do parallel swimming where they follow each other…what makes up that pairing? There is so much yet to learn.”
McInturf further explained that there is some evidence of selective preferential assortment, meaning that certain individuals prefer the company of other specific basking sharks, but the science isn’t there to understand the meaning and significance of that yet.
Having grown up in the Midwest, McInturf was always drawn to the ocean and hopes to continue her postdoctoral studies with Taylor Chapple at HMSC and is in the process of securing additional funding to continue her work with the basking shark, with plans to return to do more tagging next year.