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Protecting Sharks Isn’t Controversial at All


Chelsea Gray - Chelsea stands on sand dunes in Donegal, Ireland.
Chelsea stands on sand dunes in Donegal, Ireland. She surveyed many individuals along the beach for her research. Photo by Chelsea Gray.

Doctoral student Chelsea Gray is a self-proclaimed shark fanatic.  Her appreciation for sharks began in early childhood and has blossomed into serious academic inquiry. The Department of Environmental Science and Policy at GMU offers strong natural science, social science, and policy training and was a perfect fit for her shark research aspirations, as she is interested not just in shark behavior and biology, but in the human component of shark conservation.

Chelsea Gray - Chelsea dives with blue sharks in South Africa.
Chelsea Gray dives with blue sharks in South Africa. She doesn’t just research shark tourism, she partakes whenever there is an opportunity. Photo by Chelsea Gray.

While shark tourism is popular worldwide, protections for sharks are often considered controversial because of perceived impacts to fisheries. However, research shows that shark tourism provides income for local companies and is one of the top ways to increase awareness of shark conservation issues. Quantifying public support or opposition to protective measures is vital for drafting adequate conservation policy.  

In July of 2018, Chelsea travelled to Donegal, Ireland to meet and interview local residents and tourists about their perspective on sharks and shark conservation. Although Basking sharks grow up to 7.9 m (26 ft) in length, these slow swimming plankton eaters are generally harmless to humans. In fact, humans pose a bigger threat to basking sharks, as they are now endangered after being hunted well into the 1990s. 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 the good fortune of peaceful shark encounters. Despite their charismatic nature, basking sharks are not readily advertised as a tourist attraction in Ireland, nor are they protected under any domestic legislation. Under current Irish law, it is legal to harass or even harm a basking shark.

Chelsea wanted to know if there was any interest in basking shark tourism and if that impacted support for legal protections. Her findings show that basking sharks are a potentially untapped tourism market. Most importantly, she has found that there is widespread support for legal protections for basking sharks in Ireland.

Irish Basking Shark Group IBSG_4 ©Simon Berro
Basking sharks frequently gather in high numbers on the Irish coast and sharks can often be seen feeding together. Photo ©Simon Berrow_IBSG_4.

Chelsea's article published in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems (citation below) is released at an ideal time, as Jennifer Whitemore, TD, member of the Irish Parliament, has recently introduced the first legislation to protect basking sharks in Ireland. With the Irish Basking Shark Group (IBSG), Chelsea has been actively involved in the campaign to list basking sharks under the Wildlife Act. This would make basking sharks the first fish to be offered protections in Ireland. Chelsea’s research will be used to show public support for such measures, a vital data point as no one has yet assessed public support of such measures.

For this PhD candidate, knowing that her research will be considered by policymakers proposing protective measures for basking sharks is pretty powerful.  

Gray, C., Peters-Burton, E., Smith, C. & Parsons, E.C.M. (2022). Basking shark tourism in Donegal, Ireland – a case-study of public interest and support for shark conservation. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 1–14. DOI:

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