The angelshark (Squatina squatina) was once widespread and common, fished for and sold as monkfish (a colloquialism shared with the anglerfish today). It was especially abundant on western coasts of the UK and Ireland in the 19th Century, and was still caught regularly around other European coasts (including the Mediterranean) well into the last century.
They are ambush predators, lying buried in the sand and leaping up onto their prey. They protrude their jaw, and basically vacuum prey in.
Angelsharks are now listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, and are included under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and in EU Law, prohibiting all intentional disturbance, targeting, retainment, injury, killing or landing. It’s now rarely caught by fishermen, and reported even less by UK divers.
Angelsharks have a flattened body shape, a little like a ray or skate. Their mottled skin is a mix of spots and streaks of brown, cream and even red, overall making an effective camouflage amongst sand. Marine biologist Mike Sealey has observed these sharks for many years. “They are ambush predators, lying buried in the sand and leaping up onto their prey. They protrude their jaw, and basically vacuum prey in. So their main foods are small fish, and molluscs such as cuttlefish and squid.”
The fish spend a lot of time on the seafloor and leave an impression in the sand where they rest. This floor-hugging and largely sedentary lifestyle explains in part why they are so rare. They can’t escape seabed trawl nets, which have been used with increasing intensity over the last 100 years. Slow to grow and to breed, and being catchable right from birth, populations simply couldn’t sustain the intensity of fishing that our seabeds are subjected to.
If there is one place that can be called a stronghold, the Canary Islands could make that claim. Here the steep, shelving seabed offers them the refuge that much of the remaining coast of the north and east Atlantic no longer does. Joanna Barker, Project Manager at Zoological Society of London and Co-Lead of the Angel Shark Project said “The Angelshark Action Plan for the Canary Islands identifies the steps needed to ensure angelsharks are abundant and protected in their unique stronghold. The Angel Shark Project has been working towards this goal over the last four years by conducting vital research alongside working with governments, divers and fishers in the region. We now have a fantastic opportunity to replicate techniques developed in the Canary Islands, to better understand and protect remnant angelshark populations across their range.”
There may be some good news to report closer to home, too. Reports of angelsharks around Welsh coasts seem to be on the rise. Ben Wray, a marine ecologist at Natural Resources Wales says that while it is still a remnant population, Welsh waters may well be important for the species. “Commercial fishers and anglers have been reporting more sightings of angelsharks in recent years”, he says. “We know very little about the ecology of the shark in Welsh waters at the moment – the population could be present all year round, or only for part of the year.”
Any records of the fish are welcomed, from divers, anglers or fishers. If you come across one, record as much detail as you can about the encounter – location, conditions etc. – and submit your sighting to the Angel Shark Sightings Map. Your data could well help to protect this impressive beast.
The Angel Shark Project is a collaboration between the ZSL, Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig. The Angelshark work in Wales is being led by ZSL and NRW, as part of a wider initiative amongst several NGOs to ensure angel sharks are safeguarded throughout their natural range.
This article was written by Richard Harrington, MCS Head of Communications, for our Spring 2017 membership magazine ‘Marine Conservation’. If you’d like to receive our fantastic quarterly magazine straight to your door, you can become a member for as little as £3.50 per month.
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