- 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
- Global: CR (Critically Endangered)
- Distribution: Once widespread throughout Europe and African waters, now extremely limited distribution. Very, very rare in British waters with only the Celtic Sea area of the Atlantic Ocean holding any possibility of remaining populations. Classified as regionally extinct in much of its former range.
- Feeds on: Fish, especially flatfish, but will also hunt roundfish and occasionally eat crustaceans.
- Description: Strange looking fish that looks half way 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 referred to as monkfish by some people in the UK. Today it is normally referred to as the angel shark, with the monkfish name being used only for Lophius Piscatorius.
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 Mediterrenean, Black Sea and much of the North East Atlantic. However, commercial fishing has led to 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 lively predators which feed on the seabed. They prefer muddy or sandy ground up and do not venture into water more than about 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. The Fisherman’s Handbook in 1978 reported that a angel shark was once seen seizing a cormorant which had settled on the surface of the water by the wing and dragging it under the sea! 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. However, as the numbers of angel shark have fallen dramatically in recent years very few anglers will ever experience catching this species.
Critically Endangered Status
Throughout the twentieth century the angel shark was a fairly common fish throughout British waters. However, the rise of commercial fishing has seen this species decline massively. 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 badly affected numbers of this species. By the year 2000 the angel shark was classed as vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), with former angel shark hotspots such as Westport and Tralee Bay, both in Ireland, being found to be completely absent of angel sharks. 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, meaning that this species faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future.
The only remaining populations of any number are concentrated off the North African coast, and very low, dispersed populations remaining in the north east Atlantic and parts of the Mediterranean 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 intensity of commercial fishing operations. There is, however, a little 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. As a shark species the angel shark has no swim bladder to rupture when being pulled up from the depths and can therefore be in with a chance of survival if returned to the sea from a trawler’s net, meaning returning commercially caught angel sharks is not the waste of time it is with other marine species. 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, after a three week labour, she gave birth to nineteen – although it is a sad state of affairs that the angling community is celebrating the birth of a few fish in captivity, when this species was abundant around the UK just a generation ago. Read more about Deep Sea World’s angel shark breeding programme here.