Critically endangered shark seen off Welsh Coast

Source: Nick Long (Wikimedia Commons)

By Nia Jones

Once a prize catch in the 1970s and 1980s before it became a protected species, recent sightings of a rare species of Angelshark have been made off Cardigan Bay, in the Bristol Channel and north of Holyhead.

To protect the species off the Welsh coast the Angel Shark Project: Wales was launched in 2018 to continue to protect one of the world’s rarest shark species through Fisher engagement, historical research and citizen science. Dive for Angels events at possible habitats are currently in the works to try and seek out the species in its natural habitat and foster a greater understanding of its ecology. Along with this direct evidence, roadshows have been established to gather historical pictures and memories of the species. The roadshow is travelling the length and breadth of Wales, with the nearest event in Swansea on the 15th and 16th of February at the National Waterfront Museum highlighting the key role local knowledge from members of the public has in the advancement of science.

The Angelshark was once so abundant throughout the eastern North Atlantic to the Mediterranean the species Squatina squatina was named the ‘Common Angelshark’. Half of the 23 species of Angelshark are now listed in a threat category by the IUCN Red List, with most of the others lacking enough data to be assessed properly.

Scientists have been collecting tissue samples from the species to conduct genetic testing on the population dynamics within the only known established habitat – the Canary Islands. Following DNA and whole genome sequencing in a 2017 study, results revealed an exceptionally low genetic diversity which has implications for the survival of species, highlighting is highly vulnerable state.

The large, flat bodied shark was once common along the Atlantic coast of the UK. Following widespread decline over the past 100 years, sightings of this rare species have recently increased around the Welsh coast giving conservationists hope for the future. It’s exact habitat, however, is still unknown. Understanding how this species uses the Welsh coast alongside it’s only current stronghold, the Canary Islands, could be key in understanding more about this rare species and saving a vital lineage in evolutionary history. The species is regarded as being particularly precious as it is found at the end of a distinct branch of the tree of life, an evolutionary model which shows the relationship between different biological groups.

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