MEPS 459:121-134 (2012)  -  doi:10.3354/meps09737

Basking sharks in the northeast Atlantic: spatio-temporal trends from sightings in UK waters

Matthew J. Witt1,2,*, Tom Hardy3, Louise Johnson4, Catherine M. McClellan2, Stephen K. Pikesley2, Sue Ranger2,5, Peter B. Richardson5, Jean-Luc Solandt5, Colin Speedie4, Ruth Williams3, Brendan J. Godley2

1Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus, Penryn TR10 9EZ, UK
2Centre for Ecology and Conservation, University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus, Penryn TR 10 9EZ, UK
3Cornwall Wildlife Trust, Allet, Cornwall, UK
4Wave Action, 3 Beacon Cottages, Falmouth TR11 2LZ, UK
5Marine Conservation Society, Ross on Wye HR9 5NB, UK

ABSTRACT: Basking sharks Cetorhinus maximus have undergone widespread historic exploitation in the northeast Atlantic and are of conservation concern. A greater knowledge of their spatial and temporal habitat use is required to better inform subsequent monitoring and management strategies. Techniques such as light-based geolocation have provided great insights into individual movements, but currently available data do not permit extrapolation to the population level. Public recording schemes may, however, help to fill shortfalls in data gathering, especially when analysed in conjunction with data from these other techniques. We analysed 11781 records (from 1988 to 2008) from 2 public recording databases operating in the UK. We describe 3 sightings hotspots: western Scotland, Isle of Man and southwest England, and highlight the marked seasonality of basking shark sightings, which were at their greatest during the northeast Atlantic summer (June to August). We further highlight a significant correlation between the duration of the sightings season in each year and the North Atlantic Oscillation, an atmosphere−ocean climate oscillation that has been linked to forcing of marine ecosystems. We augment patterns from public sightings records with effort-related data collected by boat-based transects at 2 regional sightings hotspots (western Scotland and southwest England). Analysis of reported body size data indicated that the annual proportion of small sharks (<4 m length) sighted by the public decreased, the proportion of medium-sized sharks sighted (4−6 m) increased, and the proportion of large sharks sighted (>6 m) remained constant. These patterns may be indicative of a population recovery following systematic harvesting in the 20th century.

KEY WORDS: Basking shark · Cetorhinus maximus · Public sightings · Citizen-science · Marine vertebrates · Conservation

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Cite this article as: Witt MJ, Hardy T, Johnson L, McClellan CM and others (2012) Basking sharks in the northeast Atlantic: spatio-temporal trends from sightings in UK waters. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 459:121-134

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