- Scientific name: Galeorhinus galeus
- Also know as: School Shark, Soupfin Shark, Oil Shark, Penny’s Dog, Miller’s Dog, Vitamin Shark
- Size: Up to 6ft and 100lbs, although usually smaller.
- UK minimum size: Released as a protected species.
- UK shore caught record: 77lbs 3oz
- IUCN Status: VU (Vulnerable)
- Distribution: Wide distribution around the UK, but more common around the south east, southern and western coasts of the British Isles.
- Feeds on: Tope feed on a variety of different fish such as dab, flounder and pouting, as well as mackerel and herring. They will also take squid and on occasion crustaceans.
- Description: Slim, streamlined body and long pointed snout. Greyish upper body, sometimes with a brownish tinge and white belly with a distinctive, notched tail. Two dorsal fins and large, powerful pectoral fins. Mouth full of small but extremely sharp teeth. Males identified by the presence of the clasper near to the anal fin.
Tope is a slim and yet powerful shark species which is highly prized by anglers for its fighting power and the prestige of catching a shark species. While it is a species primarily associated with boat fishing it is possible to catch smaller tope from the shore, and a number of larger tope are caught by shore anglers every year.
Distribution and Habitat
Tope inhabit subtropical and temperate waters around the world. They are found throughout Europe and the west coast of North America. In the southern hemisphere, they are found in South America waters, off the coast of South Africa and throughout Australian and New Zealand waters. In terms of UK distribution they are more common along the south and west of England, in Welsh waters and along the west coast of Scotland. It is rare to find tope outside of these areas, although they are reported occasionally. Tope do not favour very rough ground but will be found over light mixed ground and sandy and shingle areas, usually in areas with a strong tidal flow.
Tope will come into large inshore estuaries and bays, but some depth of water is still required as they will not venture into shallow water. In south east England the Thames Estuary holds tope, as does Morecambe Bay in north west England and Luce Bay in south west Scotland. There are also tope in the fast running Bristol channel, off the coast of Cornwall and all around the coast of the Republic of Ireland. Tope are not a deep-sea fish and are found in a maximum depth of several hundred metres. Smaller tope, up to 20 – 30lbs may stay in small packs and hunt together, with larger fish tending to be solitary. Tope are nomadic and can travel huge distances in their lifetime. It is known for tope caught and tagged in European waters to be found again in South American or southern African waters.
Spawning and Reproduction
Breeding takes place in late winter and spring. Tope are ovoviviparous, which means fertilised eggs hatch in the bodies of females making it look as if they give birth to live young. Eggs take around a year to develop inside of the females who will venture into fairly shallow bays and estuaries to give birth. Usually, six or seven pups are released but it can be many more than this in some cases. Pups are around 12 inches (30cm) long at birth.
Commercial Value of Tope
There is little demand for tope from UK consumers and commercial vessels from Britain do not target this species, although it is caught as inadvertent bycatch. In warmer waters tope can also be caught on commercial long-lines meant for tuna. While tope is not eaten in the UK, it is popular in other European countries such as Spain, where it is marinated and then deep-fried to create the dish of cazón. Tope are also exported to Asia where they are used for shark fin soup – hence the alternative nickname of the soupfin shark. The oil-rich liver of the tope is valuable as it is high in vitamin A (hence the alternative names of oil shark and vitamin shark for this species) and the skin of the tope can be made into leather.
Conservation Status and Protection for Tope in UK Waters
The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) classes the tope as Vulnerable with a declining population trend both globally and in European waters, meaning that it is at risk of becoming an endangered species. Greenpeace have also added tope to their redlist of fish species which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries.
In 2008 legislation was introduced to protect tope in British waters. The Tope (Prohibition of Fishing) Order was implemented to stop a directed fishery specifically to catch tope from being developed. This prevented commercial vessels from specifically targeting tope, and they were limited to retaining only 45kg (99lb) of tope which was inadvertently caught when fishing for other species. In terms of boat angling, the legislation specifically stated that “it is not the intention to prevent the swift unhooking and uninjured release of rod and line caught tope.” However, it did ban the landing (bringing back to shore) of tope which had been caught by anglers on rod and line, effectively making this species catch and release only. In 2018 Brexit Party leader and former MEP Nigel Farage was criticised in the media for posing with a photo of a tope he had caught when boat fishing, despite returning the fish alive to the water as the legislation requires.
Most medium to large shark species do not adapt well to being kept in aquariums. Tope are an exception and can be seen in many large-scale aquariums and sea life centres across the world. Tope are generally considered harmless due to their relatively small size and the small fish they prey on. The International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History lists a single (non-fatal) unprovoked attack by a tope on a human since records began in 1945. In 2021 the Sun reported that a tope had “attacked” an angler off the coast of Sussex. The newspaper reported that the angler was left “bloodied” after the tope “flipped round and clamped its razor sharp teeth [on the man’s] calf.” However, few in the angling community would agree that this minor injury received when unhooking the tope constituted a shark attack.
Methods and Techniques to Catch Tope
Tope are very much seen as a boat fishing species and it is not common to catch a tope from the shore. Boat anglers fish for tope use fairly heavy powerful rods and reels as tope is a powerful fish which can run in the tide making it even more difficult to land. Rigs consist of a wire hooklength to protect against the tope’s sharp teeth and a heavy monofilament rubbing leader as the rough skin of the tope can tear through weaker line. Hook size is not generally too large, as this will make smaller sub-20lbs tope difficult to hook. Strong patterns in size 5/0 or 6/0 are the best choice as they can hook smaller fish and handle anything larger that comes along – Kamasan B950u Uptide are a good choice.
Boat anglers catch tope just a few hundred metres out to sea, and in places such as this it will be perfectly possible to catch this species from the shore. Placing a bait into a deep fast-running gully where small fish are likely to congregate offer the best chance of shore-based anglers catching a tope. Tackle needs to be strong, as even a smallish tope will put up a great fight, especially if it can use the strength of the tide to its advantage. Large multipliers and stiff, sturdy beachasters are the best choice. Remember a tope may run and need to be given line so ensure that clutches and drags are set correctly prior to beginning to fish for this species, or the ratchet (line out alarm) is used. In terms of rigs a single hook clipped down behind an impact shield will be needed, as large baits will need to be cast a decent distance. Hook size should be 4/0 in a strong, reliable pattern such as Mustad 79515 Viking Hooks. A wire hooklength is also necessary to prevent the tope biting through the line, and a rig body made of at least 80lb line is a good idea to eliminate the possibility of the rough skin of the tope causing abrasion damage to the line.
Tope primarily feed on fish and these make the best choice of bait when fishing for this species. As tope generally scour the seabed for food this means that the fish they come across most often are species such as dab, flounder, pouting, poor cod and whiting. Although they do eat mid-water fish such as herring or mackerel occasionally, they do not prey on them anywhere near as much as many UK anglers think they do. For this reason, anglers using fish not normally associated with bait, such as pouting, whiting and dab can have a higher chance of catching a tope than the more obvious mackerel, large sandeel or herring. A small whiting or pouting flapper, or the centre section of a dab can often give anglers the best chance of producing catches when shore fishing for tope.
Anglers should be under no illusions – catching a tope from the shore is a very difficult undertaking indeed, but every year there are stories in the angling press of anglers achieving this feat, proving that it is certainly possible. Due to the protected nature of this species, anyone lucky enough to a tope should unhook their catch as quickly as possible and return it to the water. The shore caught record for this species was set in 2018 with a 77lb 3oz tope caught from Strumble Head in Pembrokeshire, Wales by Ryan Wingfield. Incredibly, this tope beat the previous record for the species which he had also set with a tope of 75lbs. The boat caught record is a tope of 82lb 8oz caught by R. Chatfield off the coast of Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex in 1991.