Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2021: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Wildlife Act, 1976 to include the Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus) in the Fifth Schedule to that Act; to amend section 23 of that Act to make illegal the intentional or reckless injuring, disturbance or harassment of any protected wild animal other than for the purposes of hunting; and to provide for the drafting of a code of conduct by Ministerial regulation for the purposes of wildlife tourism or recreational activities.

This is the first Bill I have introduced in the Dáil and I am incredibly proud to be introducing it. Before I became a politician, I was a marine biologist and I worked with the Marine Institute. It is something I am very proud of and still very passionate about. My dad was quite disappointed when I told him I was getting into politics, and he thought I was leaving the environmental sector behind me. My dad has since passed but I am delighted I am still able to work on issues that are close to my heart and that were close to his heart.

The basking shark, known as Gaeilge as liamhán mór gréine, the great fish of the sun, is the world's second largest fish. They are regular visitors to our shores. We all remember that, last year, we had amazing footage from the west coast as they meandered up the coast, and it really gave us a nice respite at the start of lockdown. We have a deep cultural connection to this animal and it is often a symbol of our indigenous maritime life. It represents the mysterious nature of our marine waters and continues to mystify us as we actually know just a small amount about this creature.

Recent studies have indicated that Ireland could be home to 10% to 20% of the global population of this species. Of the eight known coastal surface hotspots in the north-east Atlantic, five are located off the coasts of Cork, Kerry, Clare, Mayo and Donegal. We are truly blessed to have this amazing creature come to our shores every year and call Ireland home. However, basking sharks are endangered and they are at very high risk of extinction in the wild. They were first classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list in 2018; they had previously been classified as vulnerable but they are now endangered.

They are protected by various international treaties and legislation in other jurisdictions and, for example, they have been protected under UK legislation since 1998. Despite their endangered status, the basking shark is not currently listed as a protected species under Irish national marine or conservation legislation and, in fact, the basking shark has no protection at all in Irish legislation. Unfortunately, this species continues to face a number of key threats, including boat strikes, harassment by recreational boat users and habitat alteration due to development of large-scale infrastructure.

Over the past year, I have engaged with many wildlife groups, scientists and experts on the basking shark, including the Irish Basking Shark Group and the Irish Wildlife Trust. It is clear what needs to be done. The Government must list this species as protected and encourage its protection to the fullest extent possible. It is a simple legislative change but it could be a matter of life and death for basking sharks. We need to treasure our natural heritage, our biodiversity and our own iconic species, and afford basking sharks the same protections that other countries afford them. In fact, we should afford them the same protections we afford our whales and dolphins. This can be done simply by amending the wildlife legislation and adding basking shark to the list of protected species.

That is why I am very proud today to be introducing my Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2021, which will list the great fish of the sun as a protected species under the Fifth Schedule of the 1976 Act. We need to go further. People across Ireland have been mesmerised by basking sharks swimming up and down our coasts, but with that come additional dangers to the species as people will want to get as close as possible to them, and we have the potential for a burgeoning tourism industry in regard to this species. Therefore, we need to give them protection from harassment and injury to ensure the species can continue to grace our waters. To ensure adequate protection is afforded to the basking shark, my Bill seeks to amend section 23 of the 1976 Act to make illegal the intentional or reckless injuring, disturbance or harassment of any protected wild animal, other than for the purposes of hunting. Furthermore, my Bill provides the Minister with an opportunity to draft a code of conduct for the purposes of wildlife tourism or recreational activities to make sure that this fish and other protected species are not harmed as more people engage with these animals.

National biodiversity week begins on Saturday, 15 May, and it is an apt time for us to consider the protections of our iconic species and for me to introduce this Bill. I urge the Government and every Member of this House to support the speedy progression of this Bill through the Oireachtas so this species can continue to be enjoyed for generations.

Is the Bill opposed?

No. I take this opportunity to congratulate Deputy Whitmore on introducing her first Bill, one of many that will come in the years ahead, I am sure.

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.