• SharkieSophie

Fallen Angels

Updated: Apr 27

One of the most threatened groups of sharks are possibly animals that you might not even know were sharks! The angel sharks (Order Squatiniformes) are very close relatives of sharks and rays, and at a glance, almost look like the evolutionary stepping stone between the two... They have flattened bodies, like their ray cousins, but also have the strong, muscular tails associated with sharks, and they are absolutely beautiful, remarkable creatures!


Angel sharks (Image source: https://angelsharknetwork.com)

Angel sharks are globally seriously at risk of extinction. The International's Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), lists 50% of the 22 species as either 'critically endangered' (CR), 'endangered' (EN) or 'vulnerable' (VU), which means they are at risk of being entirely wiped out globally.


IUCN Red List categories of angel sharks (2020)

In the Mediterranean Sea, angel sharks are especially threatened by habitat degradation and fisheries. High coastal urbanisation and increasing ocean use, can damage angel shark habitats. Yet, most significantly, angel sharks have been targeted for the meat for many generations in the Mediterranean. Specialised fishing gear was designed to easily catch them in large numbers. So, it is thought that population declines are as much as 90% over the past 45 years and there are now fears that angel sharks might have been so severely overexploited that they have been entirely "extirpated" from some regions (this means they have become locally extinct in certain areas of their range). Therefore, the IUCN Shark Specialist Group has recently produced a report about how to tackle angel shark declines in the Med (Gordon et al, 2019).


The report lists three species of most concern in the Med: the sawbuck angel shark (Squatina aculeata), the smooth back angel shark (Squatina oculata) and the ironically named common angel shark (Squatina squatina), all of which are categorised as 'critically endangered' by the IUCN (Gordon et al, 2019).

The sawbuck angel shark (Gordon et al, 2019)

At a glance, these three species might look quite similar, but in fact, being able to tell them apart is one of the most important challenges for their conservation! When angel sharks are landed in fisheries they are often reported as just 'Angelsharks' or 'sand devils'. Similarly, angel sharks are referred to by many different common names, in many different languages in the Med, so it can be challenging to discern which animals fishermen are reporting in their landings figures. Therefore, it can be very difficult to track how many of each species have been fished throughout the years (Gordon et al, 2019).

The smoothback angel shark (Gordon et al, 2019)

Another threat facing angel sharks in the Med, is our startling lack of knowledge about them! As angel sharks are now so rare, it is very difficult to collect data about their range. This means we cannot successfully implement no-take zones to protect their critical habitats (Gordon et al, 2019)


This also means that we cannot predict how their habitat might be affected in response to climate change, so we cannot predict how this might confound their protection (Gordon et al, 2019).

The common angel shark (Gordon et al, 2019)

The report also mentioned multiple political and economical factors which constrain angel shark conservation in the Mediterranean. The area is multi- jurisdictional; with more than 20 countries staking claims on the waters. Some regions are also particularly volatile and undergo regular political unrest. At best this can be a huge challenge in terms of coordinating conservation efforts between nations and at worst, this can mean conflicts between different nations can occur in response to protective measures (Gordon et al, 2019).


Many communities in the Med rely on substance fishing and therefore, there is a wide-spread culture of non-compliance with conservation legislation. Whatsmore, in the past there has been very weak implementation

of protective regulations, due to limited resources and very little funding for conservation (Gordon et al, 2019).


An angel shark buried in the sand (Image source: Gordon et al, 2019)

The specialist committee came up with several goals to improve the conservation of angel sharks in the Mediterranean sea. Firstly, they discussed the importance of placing stricter controls on fisheries, which must be efficiently monitored. They suggested this could be achieved by improving cooperation with existing legislation. They advised that this would involve improving pubic education and engagement. They suggested running education events and producing species identification guides may help fishers to understand what they may legally catch. They suggested they should also include safe-handling techniques, to ensure that fishers can release sharks with minimal stress (in order to reduce "post-release mortality") (Gordon et al, 2019).


They also discussed the need for improved data about angel sharks, which they suggested could be sourced from recreational ocean users. This would also involve public outreach, especially through angling clubs and licensing authorities, and through SCUBA groups or tourism companies. They also mentioned that collaboration with fisheries and other, separate scientific surveys could allow more data about angel shark sightings to be collected, in order to map their range and identify critical habitats. This will allow scientists to prioritise certain areas where protective measures should be implemented (Gordon et al, 2019).


They also stated that habitat degradation must be reduced to protect angel sharks, especially in their critical habitats, like feeding, mating or nursery areas, This will mean monitoring coastal developments and producing environmental impact assessments (Gordon et al, 2019).



This sounds like an enormous amount of work, which will involve significant financial assessment... but, don't feel overwhelmed or disheartened! There are some incredibly talented and passionate people, who are extraordinary dedicated to improving angel shark conservation measures! So we can only hope that all their hard work is fruitful and we soon see angel shark populations begin to bounce back, as these protective measures are implemented... only time will tell.


If you would like to stay up-to-date with the ongoing conservation of angel sharks, you can follow the IUCN Shark Specialist Group.

Or for more localised information about the Med, you can follow the Angel Shark Project.

You can also join the Shark Trust, a UK based charity working towards European shark conservation through campaigning and legislation.



References

Gordon CA, Hood AR, Al Mabruk SAA, Barker J, Bartolí A., Ben Abdelhamid S, Bradai MN, Dulvy NK, Fortibuoni T, Giovos I, Jimenez Alvarado D, Meyers EKM, Morey G, Niedermuller S, Pauly A, Serena F and Vacchi M (2019). Mediterranean Angel Sharks: Regional Action Plan. The Shark Trust, United Kingdom. Access online.


By Sophie A. Maycock for SharkSpeak.

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