The angel shark (Squatina squatina)
The common angel shark (Squatina squatina) which we find in Irish waters, is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List and also the Irish Red list for cartilaginous fish. It is one of 22 species of angel shark found globally of which half are threatened with extinction. All sharks, skates and rays (collectively known as elasmobranchs) are cartilaginous, which means their skeletons are not made up of bone. Their skeletons are made out of cartilage, the same rubbery tissue which you can feel at the end of your nose.
What do they look like?
Sharks come in all different shapes and sizes, ranging from the tiny Dwarf Lantern shark to the largest fish in the sea, the whale shark with its vibrant blue and white spot patterns. The angel shark is immediately recognisable with its large winglike fins on either side of its body (pectoral fins) resembling those of a ray. This dream-like animal which appears to be half ray and half shark, can reach lengths of up to 2.4 metres (females) and 1.8 metres (males). Their bodies and heads are flattened making them well-evolved for life along the sea floor.
Where do angel babies come from?
Some sharks lay eggs, others incubate their eggs internally and others give birth to live young. The common angel shark is ovoviviparous and so their eggs are fertilised and incubated internally and the young feed on the yolk sac. It is not known how long angel sharks are pregnant with their young, but it is thought to be somewhere between 8 and 12 months and they can have anywhere between 7 and 25 pups. The angel shark typically inhabits the seabed of inshore waters where they give birth, although they can migrate into offshore waters and can be found at depths of 150m. The angel shark’s long pregnancy and small litter size are some of the reasons this species is vulnerable to extinction.
Why are they so vulnerable?
Their bottom-dwelling nature and slow reproduction are some of the reasons their numbers have declined so dramatically. Unfortunately, and like so many other species, one of the biggest pressures on angel sharks is fishing. Particularly fisheries which use destructive fishing methods such as trawling along the sea floor. Angel sharks are sedentary and they dwell along the bottom usually burying into sand or mud, so they are easily caught by these fishing methods. These fisheries not only accidentally catch angel sharks but they also destroy their habitats making it difficult for the sharks to survive in areas in which they used to thrive. The angel shark is believed to be locally extinct in much of its former historical natural range which stretched from the Canary Islands to Scandinavia. In fact, their range has contracted by 58% in the last 100 years.
There is hope for this critically endangered species.
One of the last strongholds of this species is Tralee Bay off the west coast of Ireland. The Marine Institute conducted a survey between 2017 and 2019 on Irish sharks, skates and rays and a population of angel sharks was discovered. On speaking with local anglers we have heard about angel sharks being caught here for decades, however, big declines have been seen in the species. Locally angel sharks are also known as monkfish, not to be confused with the monkfish of the ‘Lophius‘ family that are commercially targetted and are generally found in deeper waters. They can commonly be seen at fish counters and on restaurant menus.
Scientists realised that Tralee Bay was a refuge and potentially a breeding site for angel sharks. Tralee Bay is within the newly announced Greater Skellig Coast Hope Spot and it is also one of the Areas of Interest in our ‘Revitalising Our Seas’ report. This area needs to be fully protected so that the angel shark will continue to have a place of refuge and hopefully have a chance to replenish their dwindling numbers.
In August the Fair Seas team spoke with members of the Tralee Bay Sea Angling Club. Honourary Club President Richard Kelter told us of the big decline he’s seen in all species. We now have the chance to work hand-in-hand with the communities of Tralee Bay to safeguard one of the last remaining refuges for angel sharks.
This blog was written by Grace Carr, Marine Policy Officer at the Irish Wildlife Trust, a partner of the Fair Seas campaign.
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We also welcome you to join us in Cork on 8th June, where we are hosting our inaugural World Ocean Day conference. We are bringing ocean advocates, government, industry and key stakeholders together to map out the next steps for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Irish waters.
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