The basking shark receives protected status thanks to the work of a Mason PhD student


The basking shark is now a "protected wild animal" under new legislation that came into effect in Ireland this week. It is now an offense to hunt or injure them or to willfully interfere with their breeding or resting places, thanks to  an international collaboration between United States, United Kingdom and Irish researchers, including George Mason University alum and current doctoral candidate Chelsea Gray.

image of sharks circling in the ocean
Photo by the Irish Basking Shark Group

This legislation was heavily supported by the Irish Basking Shark Group (ISBG), an international network of researchers, educators, and community representatives founded in 2009. In 2021, this group organized an international consortium of scientists and conservation organizations to sign an open letter to the Irish government, calling for legal protection of basking sharks in Ireland. Simultaneously, the IBSG also ran a “Save Our Sharks” campaign, resulting in 12,000 signatures in support of this new policy.

U.S. representatives Alexandra McInturf, co-coordinator of the IBSG and a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon State University, and Gray have been working alongside their Irish and UK partners to conduct vital research for basking shark conservation.

“This is a great example of the importance of diversifying research methods and collaborating with as many people as possible,” said Gray, who is working on a PhD in environmental science and public policy at Mason. Her research on social attitudes helped demonstrate strong public support for basking shark conservation.
woman stands on a beach in Ireland
Chelsea Gray on the beach in Donegal, Ireland in 2018. Photo provided

McInturf has been conducting field studies on basking sharks in Ireland and recently published a study on the basking shark population along the U.S. West Coast. She believes international collaboration is critical to ensuring the persistence of this species worldwide.

“Basking sharks are highly mobile, capable of moving across entire ocean basins. In doing so, they pass through the jurisdiction of many different countries,” said McInturf, who also sits on the scientific steering committee for the SeaMonitor Project, an international research initiative designed to study basking sharks and other marine species. “It is estimated that Irish waters host 10-20% of the global population of this shark species year-round. Their presence in Ireland also appears relatively steady. This suggests that Ireland offers important habitat for the species.”

While shark tourism is popular worldwide, protections for sharks are often considered controversial because of perceived impacts to fisheries. In her research, Gray wanted to find out if there was any interest in basking shark tourism and if that impacted support for legal protections. In July 2018, Gray traveled to Donegal, Ireland, to interview local residents and tourists about their perspective on sharks and shark conservation.

Although basking sharks grow up to 7.9 meters (26 feet) in length, these slow swimming plankton eaters are generally harmless to humans. Gray said their docile nature and habit of feeding at the surface of the water make basking sharks an ideal candidate for shark-viewing, as they can be viewed from land or a boat, and many ocean-goers have had peaceful encounters with this type of shark.

woman scuba diving with a blue shark
Chelsea Gray diving with blue sharks off the coast of South Africa. Photo provided

Gray’s findings, which were the basis for her 2019 master’s thesis, showed that basking sharks are a potentially untapped tourism market and that there was widespread support for legal protections for basking sharks in Ireland. And her article, “Basking shark tourism in Donegal, Ireland—A case study of public interest and support for shark conservation,” was published in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems at an ideal time, as a member of the Irish Parliament had just introduced the legislation to protect the sharks.

“The IBSG has provided me the opportunity to take an active role in shark conservation and has shown me the challenge and reward of achieving conservation legislation,” said Gray, whose appreciation for sharks began in early childhood. “This new law is a major step forward in basking shark conservation, but this is only the beginning of a long road to crafting comprehensive, science-based marine policy. I am honored to be part of a group that continues to build key relationships and push for important changes.”

Read more about her research.