In search of baskers

The Observer Magazine, October 2013:

The basking shark returns to British waters

Basking shark feeding of the Cornish CoastlineAs big as a yacht and with jaws so large it could swallow you whole – it’s little wonder terrified sailors hunted basking sharks almost to extinction. But now they are being seen in growing numbers from Donegal to Cornwall. Alex Renton goes in search of a gentle giant

This summer, on the western edges of Britain and Ireland, was a time of gentle monsters: great black fins parading sedately off the beaches, leviathans floating in warm sea as docile as Granddad on a lilo. From Cornwall to Donegal, local papers ran stories of swimmers’ and kayakers’ encounters with sharks “Bigger than Jaws!” “The size of a bus!” But most of the reports went on to say that the fish – which can indeed grow to 11m, a double-decker’s length – were strangely blasé about the panicky, flapping humans. In fact, they didn’t seem interested at all.

The basking sharks (or the cearban, the muldoan, hoe-mother, the brigdie… every Atlantic coast has its name for them) were back. They were late this year because the sea was colder than usual. They usually appear from May in the southwest, June in the Isle of Man and July in the Hebrides. But when they did turn up it was in great numbers. By August the sharks were swarming up the Scottish coast. Fishing boats and Ribs reported near-misses. On the Oban to Barra run, the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry had to keep a special lookout so the ship could avoid schools of giants cruising the seas at a sedate 3mph. TheShark Trust, which logs sightings, announced record-breaking numbers for Scotland.

Basking sharks are Britain’s elephants, our biggest animals. They’re also our most mysterious. They arrive in herds and then all but disappear for decades. For long periods in the 80s and 90s it was thought they had been fished nearly to extinction. (It wasn’t until 1998 that hunting them was outlawed.) Behind most of the Atlantic coast’s myths of water monsters and sea snakes lie basking sharks, with their weird snouts and confusing skeletal remains. The long claspers – the male sexual organs – can look like a pair of legs, and decomposing baskers fooled several 19th-century naturalists into announcing the discovery of new species.

Read the rest of this article  at Guardian Online (free)

The future of fish farming?

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Alastair Barge with one of his (smaller) halibut

May 24, 2013: Here’s my Guardian  story on Gigha Halibut, the onshore farm producing gorgeous, chemical-free fish –  at a premium – on Scotland’s West Coast.

It got interesting reaction from the salmon-farming industry. Some of it not even rude. See below.

There are stealth bombers cruising through the huge swimming pool, flat-fish the size of doors, changing colour as you watch, from matt black to pebble-and-sand. Fish farmer Bob Wilkieson pulls one up in a net. It is 7kg of dense, thrashing muscle, utterly alien with its twisted face and deltoid wings.

These are four-year-old Atlantic halibut, and they may be the future of fish-farming: raised onshore, without chemicals and on organic feed. Unlike the flabby, slimy stuff we have come to accept as farmed salmon, this halibut is lean and far better to eat – in terms both of ethics and taste – than its wild brothers.

I went to Gigha, a little island off Kintyre, for a taste. Smoked Gigha halibut, which has kept popping up on menus since its launch 18 months ago, is worth the trip. Sliced thin, with a little lemon, its sweet, gently oaky taste (Gigha’s smoke-recipe using whisky-barrel chips was designed by the acknowledged master, Allan MacDougall, late of the Loch Fyne smokery) has high-end chefs queueing up for some of the strictly limited production.

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