Within the past week, scientists have observed one of the worlds rarest sharks alive and well off the Welsh coast.
Prior to these observations, it was believed that the Canary Islands were the last remaining stronghold of angel sharks globally, yet recent evidence suggests that they have a secret refuge in Welsh waters.
So what exactly are angel sharks?
Angel sharks (Squatina squatina) don’t really look like the stereotypical image of a shark at all – closer resembling a ray in shape – and as a result, this can cause confusion amongst record keepers and fishers, with catches sometimes being misidentified.
Belonging to the angel shark family (Squatinidae) – the second most threatened family of elasmobranchs (sharks, skates and rays) worldwide – angel sharks are large, flat-bodied demersal (bottom-dwelling) sharks listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and can reach 2.4 metres in length.
Typically inhabiting continental shelves to depths of 200m, angel sharks can also be located in estuaries and brackish waters and have recently been spotted off Cardigan Bay, the Bristol Channel and near Holyhead.
Once upon a time, angel sharks were vastly abundant, with a historical distribution from Norway to the West Sahara and the Canary Islands, including the Baltic, Mediterranean and Black Seas.
Angel sharks are exceedingly rare and are one of the most endangered fish in European waters. In fact, worryingly they are listed as the fifth most Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) sharks in the world, representing a potential loss of a distinctive branch of the tree of life.
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) it is illegal to intentionally disturb, kill, injure, or kill angel sharks within 12 nautical miles of Welsh and English coastlines and for commercial fishers, it is illegal to target, retain, tranship or land angel sharks for all EU and third country vessels in EU waters.
However, before becoming a protected species, the angel shark was a prized catch by Welsh fishermen in the 1970s and 1980s, which may be the leading cause of a population crash from which they have never been able to recover.
Like many shark species, angel sharks have a low fecundity and a late maturity age resulting in a slow recovery rate, if any recovery, from population pressures.
Major threats to the continued depletion of angel shark populations include the intensification of demersal fishing practices, disturbance by divers and beach users, habitat degradation via pollution and coastal developments – particularly within their nursery grounds and aggregation areas – alongside lack of appropriate and enforced legislation for their protection.
Hope, however, is on the horizon.
The Angel Shark Conservation Network and the Angel Shark Project in the Canary Islands are two of the flagship projects that the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) funds, incorporating integral conservation and outreach work to safeguard the future of the angel shark.
In July 2018, Angel Shark Project: Wales was launched with the aim of establishing a clearer idea of where angel sharks are located within the Welsh coastline and recognising their role within Welsh maritime heritage.
Last week the Angel Shark Roadshow began in Nefyn on Friday 25th January and will be progressing on to Milford Haven, Swansea, Aberystwyth and Holyhead during February and March.
With the mission of accumulating community memories and fisher records of this elusive fish, conservationists hope to build a more consistent picture for the historical record of one of the world’s most threatened sharks.
Can’t attend the Angel Shark Roadshow?
Additional ways you can get involved with the conservation of the angelshark include volunteering as a citizen scientist, participating in Dive for Angel surveys and giving angelsharks a voice on social media.
Compagno, L. J. V., Dando, M., & Fowler, S. (2005). Collins field guide: Sharks of the world. London, UK: Harper Collins.
Cover image: By greenacre8 – Angel Shark 6 Nov 06, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6379759