Basking shark was caught Sunday by trawlers and donated to science. Photo: Museum Victoria

The capture Sunday of a giant basking shark off Australia has drawn the ire of conservationists, but represents an opportunity for scientists to study this rare and mysterious species.

The 20-foot shark was hauled up by the crew of a trawler off Portland, in Victoria, and was dead by the time it reached the surface. It was a surprise catch because basking sharks typically roam waters far beyond Australia's continental shelf.


Scientists measure the basking shark. Photo” Museum Victoria

These are plankton-eating filter feeders and the world's second-largest fish, behind whale sharks, capable of reaching lengths of nearly 30 feet.

Little is known about the migration patterns of basking sharks, but they’re found in temperate seas around the world, and the overfished species is labeled “vulnerable” by the IUCN red list.

This helps to explain why there's an outcry every time one of these gentle giants is caught hauled up by fishermen using indiscriminate gear, such as trawling nets.

"While bycatch of other species such as dolphins has declined after highly publicized campaigns to protect them, the undeserved bad reputation of sharks is slowing down efforts to protect them from this wasteful and destructive practice," an unidentified spokesperson for Save Our Sharks, an Australian conservation group, is quoted as saying in The Independent.

On Museum Victoria's Facebook page, many of the comments were critical of the capture, despite the boon the catch is said to represent for scientists.

"I would love to learn more about how Museum Victoria will feed this research into proactive efforts to protect basking sharks please," wrote PT Hirschfield, in the comment thread.

Museum Victoria told reporters that this was only the third time it has been able to work with a basking shark in 160 years-that’s how rare they are in Australian waters.


Generic image showing a basking shark feeding on plankton is courtesy of Greg Skomal/NOAA

Scientists have obtained tissue and skin samples for DNA and isotope analysis, which might reveal where the shark came from and what it had been eating. The head, jaws and fins will be used to construct a life-size mold, which will be placed on public display.

“This is a great acquisition for the museum,” Martin Gomon, senior curator of ichthyology at the museum, told The Age. “It’s wonderful to be able to get some information about a shark we don’t come across that often.”

On the IUCN red list, a vulnerable listing is just below endangered.

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