The recent capture of a rare giant shark off the coast of Australia has made international news.
The shark was found deceased in fisherman’s nets, and the body was donated to the Museum Victoria. It was only the third time a basking shark has been seen in that area in 160 years. But the basking shark doesn’t have the same sort of popular representation that the great white shark (of Jaws fame) does. What is generally known about the basking shark?
The basking shark is the second largest living shark, only surpassed by the whale shark. Like the whale shark, it is a plankton eater. Its most distinctive feature is its wide mouth, which filters plankton from the water. They are slow movers (which is where the name comes from) and while they can exist in any environment, having been seen off the coast of Japan, Newfoundland, and Argentina, they prefer warm water. Basking sharks are often seen off the coast of Hawaii. They are able to leap out of the water for brief periods of time and spend most of their time near the surface of the water. As the titular rare giant shark shows, basking sharks are very large. Some can grow to 33 feet and weigh an amazing 8,000 pounds.
Unfortunately, the basking shark is in danger. The “rare giant shark” note that every article about the catch adds is no exaggeration. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the basking shark as “vulnerable” and notes that the population has been steadily decreasing. Most of this is the result of over-fishing. The catch that made the news is accidental, but basking sharks are used as a food source in many cultures. The growing demand for shark fin soup in China has contributed to the decreasing population. Other reasons for hunting the rare giant shark is that they’re medicinal in nature. Basking sharks have the largest liver of all sharks. They are in demand for the ever-growing shark liver oil trade. Shark liver oil is a folk remedy, and many claims have been made as to its healing powers, but no significant effects have been shown in clinical studies. It is also hunted for its cartilage, which is claimed to cure cancer. Like the claims made for shark liver oil, there has been no clinical effect when studied.
Marine biologists at the Museum Victoria have praised the catch of the rare giant shark, saying the samples can be used to learn more about the species.
[Photo by Wikipedia / Greg Skomal / NOAA Fisheries Service]