In May, the sight of up to eight seven-metre basking sharks lazily swimming around Keem Bay off Achill Island sparked renewed national and local interest in the world’s second-largest fish.
Visitors flocked to the island to catch a glimpse of the plankton-eating sharks swimming near the shore, and thanks to the sharks’ placid nature and slow-swimming speed, people are able to get up close and personal with them in the water.
Once plentiful around the waters of Keem Bay, basking sharks had all but disappeared in the last three decades. The main reason for their decline was the lucrative shark fishing industry, which started in Achill in 1947 and remained a thriving industry until its collapse in the 1970s. At the industry’s peak, between the years of 1950 and 1964, more than 9,000 sharks were caught. In the busiest year, 1952, a catch of 1,808 was recorded. By 1984, the final year in which fishing occurred, just five basking sharks were caught.
The return of the gentle giants to the waters off Achill has been welcomed by retired fisherman, Brian McNeill, one of the few surviving fishermen involved in the trade.
A native of Castleblaney in Co Monaghan, Brian came to live in Achill in the late 1960s, where he settled and married local woman, May – a daughter of a shark fisherman called Charlie O’Malley. Brian joined his father-in-law’s crew. He admits that he found shark fishing difficult in the early days, and there were plenty of drenchings.
“I was out of the currach (into the sea) nearly every single day. I’d swim ashore into Poll a Ropa (Fishing Rock) and they’d [rest of the crew] pick me up. I’d have to sit in the wet clothes until they dried because there was no going ashore. It was good craic, but it was a hard way to learn the lingo, so it was,” Brian said having lost none of his Monaghan accent.
“During the fishing season, some fishermen would stay overnight in specially built huts which were located on the beach. The days were long, and the work was hard,” he said.
There were dangers associated with dealing with a-seven metre shark while in a small currach. “The biggest danger was that the shark would dive because he was trying to get away, so he could pull the currach over. The other danger was his tail, you always stayed away from the tail.
“When you put the spear into the shark, you’d get him in the vertebrae and this white spout, like milk goes, up in the air and his eyes turned in his head. His eyes aren’t black anymore, they’re white, so you know he’s gone then,” Brian explained.
In today’s world the thought of killing such a placid creature seems cruel and barbaric but during a time when emigration was rife in the west of Ireland, the reward was good. A season’s fishing could keep keep an average family funded for over nine months of the year.
“There was great money for the shark. Nobody had to go away from this part of the island,” he explained. “The sharks kept them going in the ’50 and ’60s before I came and even in the ’70s.”
The sharks were sold to a local businessman, Joe Sweeney, whose enterprise was located at the nearby Purteen harbour. There the liver of the shark was processed into oil; more than a tonne of oil could be extracted from the larger sharks.
The oil was originally used for street lighting, but by the 1950s it was used for cosmetics. Its lubrication and thermal properties saw it used as a lubricant in sensitive aviation instruments.
From Achill, Mr Sweeney exported both the shark’s oil and its fins to destinations all over the world. The fin of the shark was used for making shark fin soup in Hong Kong. The oil also had good healing properties, and locals noticed cuts would heal much quicker if they were rubbed with the oil.
By the early ’70s they were still catching over 100 sharks in the season, but over time the numbers started to drop off and the industry was no longer economical. Over-fishing in Keem Bay over the years was blamed, but Brian believes their were other reasons for their decline.
“Every boat from Donegal to Cork had about two miles of net and the drift nets were on top of the water and were about 45 meshes deep. The sharks were going into the drift nets and they’d roll up and start spinning.
“The boatmen would come and cut the net on each side and just sew it up and the shark was let drown,” he explained.
In 1984, a documentary called ‘The Shark Hunters of Achill Island’ was produced by ITV and Channel 4. At the time Brian was a member of the last crew to fish sharks on the island. The scarcity of sharks was such that the crew had to wait five days before one arrived. Unknown to everyone at the time, they were filming the last shark to be commercially caught off Keem Bay.
Reflecting on the catch Brian explained: “The shark was going wild because the camera crew were in the hut when the shark was hit, and it took them 40 minutes to get ready and make their way out.
“By the time they got out there the shark was doing handstands and smashing his tail in the water. We had an awful job to kill him, but we done it,” he explained.
Now in his retirement years, Brian still enjoys heading down to Keem Bay from his home in Dooagh and looking out over the bay. He welcomes the return of the basking shark and is hopes they will thrive again.
“Even though I killed a lot of them, I’m glad to see them here again, and I’m glad there’s no one killing them anymore,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll keep increasing in numbers. I think they will.”