Angel Shark

Angel Shark

  • Scientific name: Squatina squatina
  • Also know as: Monkfish
  • Size: Up to 6ft and 70lbs.
  • UK minimum size: N/a – must be returned to the sea by law
  • UK shore caught record: 52lb 14oz
  • IUCN status: CR (Critically Endangered)
  • Distribution: Once widespread throughout Europe and African waters, now extremely limited distribution. Very rare in British waters with only the Celtic Sea area of the Atlantic Ocean holding any possibility of remaining populations.
  • Feeds on: Fish, especially flatfish, but will also hunt roundfish and occasionally eat crustaceans.
  • Description: Strange looking fish that looks halfway between a shark and a ray. Long, flat squat body with extremely large pectoral fins and two very small dorsal fins set way back on the body. Eyes and nasal openings both set on the top of its body. Usually a yellowy to light brown colour with small white and dark spots all over the body.

The angel shark is an unusual looking fish which is often mistaken for some kind of skate or ray when it is in fact a true shark species. Confusingly, the angel shark was once known as monkfish in the UK. Today it is usually referred to as the angel shark, with the monkfish name being used only for Lophius Piscatorius.

Distribution

The angel shark was a widespread species until well into the twentieth century, found around most of the British Isles. Healthy populations were also found throughout the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and much of the North East Atlantic. However, commercial fishing has led to a huge reduction in angel shark numbers to the extent that this species is now classed as regionally extinct in areas where it was once common such as the North Sea and much of the Mediterranean. A remnant population is still found around the Canary Islands off the southern coast of Morocco, and individual angel sharks are very occasionally observed off the southern and western coasts of the British Isles.

Habitat and Feeding

Angel shark are active predators which feed on the seabed. They prefer muddy or sandy ground and are a species which does not inhabit deep water, rarely being found in water more than one hundred metres deep. They will lie partially buried under the sediment like a flatfish and feed by ambushing prey but are also surprisingly nimble and more than capable of chasing and hunting down fish. They will feed on any fish they come across, from flatfish such as dab, plaice and flounder to roundfish such as mackerel, codling and dogfish. When hooked the angel shark is a very strong fighter which can clamp its flat body to the seabed making it very difficult to shift. Unfortunately, as the numbers of angel shark have fallen dramatically in recent years very few anglers will ever experience catching this species.

Critically Endangered Status

Angel Shark Feeding

An angel shark feeding on the seabed.

Throughout the twentieth century the angel shark was a fairly common fish throughout British waters. However, the increasing intensity of commercial fishing has seen this species decline significantly. Although the angel shark has no commercial value it is often caught in the nets of trawlers and then simply thrown back into the sea dead as part of the bycatch. The angel shark’s seabed-dwelling nature making it particularly vulnerable to being caught by seabed trawling, but long-lines and static nets have also impacted numbers of this species. Further harm may have been caused by the expansion of offshore wind farms which are often built in shallow waters which form nursery areas for juvenile angel sharks. By the year 2000 the angel shark was classed as vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), with areas which once held notable numbers of angel sharks such as Westport and Tralee Bay, both in Ireland, being found to be completely absent of the species. In 2006 the angel shark was declared extinct in the North Sea and its overall conservation status was raised to Critically Endangered with a declining population trend both globally and in European waters. This status was maintained at the most recent assessment in 2017 meaning that angel sharks are at an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

The only remaining populations of any number are concentrated off the North African coast, and very low, dispersed populations around the Canary Islands. However, in early 2019 it was reported that a study by Natural Resources Wales had uncovered encouraging evidence that angel sharks may be present off the Welsh coast, although it is not currently known if this is a separate population or angel sharks which have migrated from the Canary Islands.

With angel sharks being a slow-growing species, and not able to reproduce until they are between eight and twelve years old, it will be extremely difficult for numbers of these fish to ever increase without a serious reduction in the intensity of commercial fishing operations. There is some good news for this species. In January 2009 European legislation was passed stating that all angel sharks caught (commercially or recreationally) had to be returned to the sea. Although this legislation came far too late to halt the decline of the angel shark it was still welcomed by conservationists as a step in the right direction. A number of European countries such as Britain, Malta and Spain have also introduced regulations to protect angel sharks within their territorial waters.

Further good news came when an angel shark kept in captivity in Deep Sea World (Scotland’s national aquarium in Fife) became pregnant in late 2011. Staff at the aquarium stated that they would have been happy with one healthy pup, but in the end, she gave birth to nineteen – although it is a sad state of affairs that the birth of a few fish in captivity is being celebrated when this species was abundant around the UK just a generation ago.

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