Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]

 

6:45 pm

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)

I acknowledge all the work that Deputy Whitmore has done in this area. The Government will not oppose this Bill. The Deputy’s passion and concern for protecting basking sharks is very clear and indeed is shared by the Government. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, shares the Deputy’s desire for greater protections. He and the Department are supportive of measures to support and enhance that.

The basking shark is the largest fish species in the north Atlantic with some exceptional specimens reaching over 12 m in length having been recorded. This species has a long historical and cultural connection with Irish coastal communities. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, has classified the basking shark as endangered on their red list of globally threatened species. The species has also been assessed as endangered on Ireland's own red list of sharks and rays. The species faces a risk of extinction in the wild and monitoring and management is needed to mitigate against this.

Records suggest that the coast of Ireland is an important habitat for key stages in the basking shark's life cycle, with sharks typically appearing on the surface along the western Irish seaboard during April. While typically the sharks disperse from Irish coastal waters during late summer, many individuals also winter in Irish offshore waters.

Research into the population, distribution and life cycle of the basking sharks is ongoing. The Irish and EU-funded INTERREG VA SeaMonitor project is currently investigating connectivity within and between populations in the north east Atlantic. This, in conjunction with several other Irish-based studies, will help Ireland to make informed decisions on the conservation of the species into the future.

While target fishing and the landing of by-caught basking sharks for sale is subject to a memorandum ban under the Common Fisheries Policy and in wider EEA areas, it is recognised that a number of threats in Irish waters do remain. These include by-catch threats and entanglement in, for example, crab pot ropes. Basking sharks can be observed around coastal waters, giving a wonderful natural spectacle to those nearby. While the increase in interest in wildlife tourism is broadly welcomed, this does bring with it some negative behaviours. Disturbance and harassment by marine ecotours and other recreational boat users, jet skis and divers also appear to be a growing issue. These are some of the behaviours that the Bill proposed by the Deputy is seeking to address.

My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and officials from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage have met with Deputy Whitmore, as referenced, on a number of occasions to discuss the Bill and the proposed development of regulations. Work is underway to make a regulation under section 23(2)(a) of the Wildlife Act 1976 to confer protected wild animal status on the basking shark.

Once protected wild animal status is conferred and it would be an offence under section 23(5) to hunt these species, unless under permission or licence granted by the Minister under the Act; to injure these species, unless done while hunting in accordance with a licence or exemption cited above; or wilfully to interfere with or destroy their breeding or resting places. I am glad to say that work to confer section 23 protections on the basking shark are now at an advanced stage.

In addition, a code of conduct for sustainable marine eco-tourism will be developed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. A review of international best practice is currently underway. Key stakeholders to assist in drafting the code of conduct are being identified. The code of conduct will also be subject to public consultation in due course. A wider review of the Wildlife Act is planned and the applicability and degree of protection afforded to the species listed on the fifth schedule will be included in that review process. These actions will serve as the first step in providing protection for the species in Irish territorial waters. The code of conduct will help Ireland to further meet its commitments under international treaties.

I would like to join with Deputy Gannon in offering my sympathies to Deputy Whitmore and to her family.

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