The Isle of Man’s reputation as a ‘hot spot’ for Basking Sharks has now taken on new meaning as Port Erin hosts the world’s first international Basking Shark conference.
Basking Sharks: A Global Perspective, which is taking place at the Erin Arts Centre from 2nd – 5th August, has brought together Basking Shark specialists from all over the world in order to promote the sharing of invaluable knowledge relating to the conservation, management and research of the species.
Delegates – ranging from genetic scientists to specialists in conservation law - have travelled from such diverse locations as Norway, France, the Seychelles and Ireland to contribute to, and participate in, an intensive programme of talks, workshops and field trips.
The conference has been chiefly organised by Dr Fiona Gell, Liz Charter and Laura Hanley from the Wildlife and Conservation of DAFF, with extensive support from the Manx Wildlife Trust.
Key sponsorship and support has also come from the Isle of Man Government and several prominent research and conservation bodies, namely the Marine Biological Association, Marine Conservation International, Wildlife Computers, the Shark Trust and the Save Our Seas Foundation.
The conference was 'introduced' at the weekend with a number of community-orientated events.
During Friday and Saturday daytime, children were given the chance to learn more about Basking Sharks by making models, while on Saturday evening, acclaimed shark filmmakers Nick Caloyianis (also a noted National Geographic photographer) and Clarita Berger gave a free talk about their experiences.
Sunday evening (2nd August) saw a series of presentations from Island residents who, whether through diving, kayaking, wildlife trips or volunteer work, have made invaluable contributions to research and public understanding.
Yesterday (Monday 3rd August), the first of the symposium sessions got underway.
Following a briefing by Mauvis Gore (from Marine Conservation International and the Save Our Seas Foundation), Chief Minister Tony Brown MHK gave an official welcome to the assembled delegates.
Briefly touching on the Island's record of Basking Shark protection (the species has been protected by law since 1990, with further measures taken in 2007 to 'toughen' existing legislation), Mr Brown emphasised that the Island will "continue to give support and play an active role in research".
He also commented more generally on the Government's marine policy, confirming that plans for a marine nature reserve, earmarked for completion in 2011, will "restore and replenish stocks of species which are native to Manx waters and ultimately bring wider benefits to the Island's community in terms of education, recreation and tourism".
Mr Brown's address was followed by a further welcome from Dudley Butt MLC, Member for Wildlife and Conservation and Fisheries, who thanked the sponsors and supporting groups for their input.
Jackie Hall, Co-ordinator of the Manx Basking Shark Watch and Voluntary Marine Officer for Manx Wildlife Trust, described the way in which close co-operation between the MBSW, the Trust and the Isle of Man Government has enabled the conference plans to come to fruition; she also praised the generosity of volunteers and sponsors, on whom both the MBSW and the Trust are reliant.
After a final welcome by Richard Hartnoll, Chairman of MWT Marine Committee, the conference's keynote speaker took to the stage.
Dr Leonard Compagno from the Save our Seas Foundation, one of the world's leading authorities on Basking Sharks, was due to give the opening talk but was reported to be still in transit (and out of contact) at the conference opening time.
Stepping into his shoes, Professor David Sims from the Marine Biological Association (based in Plymouth) gave a clear, compelling overview of Basking Shark research - what is known to date and what is still to be discovered.
Using a graph to demonstrate the dramatic increase of 'knowledge gain' from the late 1980s onwards, Professor Sims described the research status quo as "the start of a journey".
In summing up, he described the particular need for more research into genetics, population structures and shark-habitat relationship (with regard to climate change), and emphasised the need for rigorous photo ID surveys, by-catch reports and, above all, collaboration between research and conservation groups around the world.
Collaboration - the Key to Conserving the Basking Shark
Later in the morning, explaining the genesis of the conference, Jackie Hall explains how another congress, the most recent European Elasmobranch Association meeting in November 2008, persuaded Dr Fiona Gell of the benefits of collaboration.
"Generally, scientists don't talk to one another because they're all competing for a small amount of funding" says Jackie.
"We're hoping that the conference will resolve this by allowing people to come together and work together; to pool their knowledge and their data.
"We're calling for greater collaboration so that we can do the research and present the findings to world governments - to save the Basking Shark.
"Having Basking Shark specialists - be it in behaviour, genetics, tagging, conservation - putting on a united front and working together is a massive step forward."
Dr Gell adds, "To see Basking Shark experts come here from all over the world is fantastic. It was also great, on Sunday evening, to have local people, who have been studying the sharks for a long time, share their knowledge and observations".
Basking Sharks: A Global Perspective continues through the week, concluding on Thursday afternoon. On Thursday evening (6th August), there will be a free talk, open to the public, on Sea Turtles in the British Isles, by Peter Richardson from the Marine Conservation Society UK. The talk runs from 8pm til 10pm and takes place at the Erin Arts Centre, Port Erin.
Pictured (l-r): Graham Hall (Manx Basking Shark Watch), Liz Charter (DAFF), Dr Fiona Gell (DAFF), Jackie Hall (Manx Basking Shark Watch & Manx Wildlife Trust), Rupert Ormond (Save Our Seas Foundation), Mauvis Gore (Save Our Seas Foundation), Chief Minister Tony Brown MHK, Scott Wallace (David Suzuki Foundation), David Sims (Marine Biological Association) and Dudley Butt MLC. Photograph by Malcolm Lambert.