A light in the darkness – how collaborative science is helping save the Angelshark in the Canary Islands

Michael Sealey. Project scientists recently observed the birth of 2 Angelshark pups during surveys in the Canary Islands.

Authored by Joanna Barker, Co-Founder of Angel Shark Project: Canary Islands and marine biologist at Zoological Society of London.

July, 2019 - Spain’s adoption earlier this month of the highest level of protection for the Critically Endangered Angelshark is a major milestone in efforts to save this species. But ensuring the future of this unique shark relies on continued data-gathering and working with the communities whose actions will make the difference.

If you go down to the ocean’s edge in the beautiful Canary Islands at night-time, you could be in for quite a surprise. Wading around in the shallows, wielding flashlights or wearing headlamps and peering in to the illuminated waters, a group of scientists may be looking for something. Do not be alarmed. 

If ever there were a shark custom-made for a children’s story book, then surely the Angelshark is it. Its flattened, rounded features, beady-looking eyes and beautiful brown speckled skin are inarguably endearing, and it is easy to see why many of us working to save them from extinction end up falling in love with them. 

Because they are so perfectly camouflaged against the sandy seafloors, where they most commonly reside, the best way to study Angelsharks is at night, when they are more active, and their eyes reflect in the beams of a flashlight. A lot of scientists working with these animals become semi-nocturnal – we are often found at work in the water deep into the night!

The peaceful flat-bodied Angelsharks’ tendency to lie buried under the sand and remain unnoticed, almost invisible, helps them to evade not only potential predators, but also scientists, who have overlooked them for many decades. That is now changing.

The Angelshark (Squatina squatina), was formerly common across the Atlantic coasts of Europe and Africa as well as the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Over the last 100 years, they have undergone dramatic declines. The fact that Angelsharks live mostly on the seafloor in coastal areas makes them highly vulnerable to the combined impact of fishing and habitat loss. The Angelshark is now classified as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species and is part of the second-most threatened family of sharks.

However, there is one unique place which remains a stronghold for this species – the Canary Islands archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. This is why in 2014, Eva Meyers and I began work here and set up Angel Shark Project: Canary Islands. We were both driven to build understanding of this highly unusual shark species, through research and engagement, to secure effective protection for the species in the Canary Islands and help Angelshark survival across its range.

Angel Shark Project: Canary Islands is a collaboration between three European Partners: The University of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria (ULPGC), the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig (ZFMK) and Zoological Society of London (ZSL). 

In the five years since its conception, Angel Shark Project: Canary Islands has grown into a network of collaborators, including researchers, recreational divers, fishers, conservation experts, photographers and videographers, all working to raise awareness and improve understanding of these unique sharks, as well as advance their protections.

The project, supported by a group of funders including the Shark Conservation Fund (SCF), is a powerful example of how wildlife conservation can only be truly effective when it is a collaborative effort between scientists, government and all those people who have a stake in the places where species are found. 

It is fair to say that, traditionally, conservation scientists have been slow to engage with the communities whose day-to-day lives and activities are most closely connected to the species we seek to protect. Our work is committed to changing this, because it is only through the support of local people and those who are in or on the water every day, that protective measures really work. 

Our work has involved engaging with fishers to build knowledge of how to avoid catching Angelsharks and training in techniques to safely return them to the water if accidentally caught. It has entailed developing citizen science networks involving the hundreds of divers who enter the waters of these islands every day, to help build data on Angelshark ecology.

The project has also, of course, involved close work with policy-makers both locally in the Canary Islands and nationally in Spain, to make sure the best level of legal protection is secured to underpin strong regulations informed by robust science. 

For the last three years, we have contributed to technical reports in collaboration with the Spanish Ministry of Ecological Transition, which resulted in confirmation last month that three species of angel shark (Squatina squatina, as well as S. aculeata and S. oculata) have been included in the Spanish Endangered Species List for Canary Island waters, under the category of “in danger of extinction” (the highest category within this legislation).

Any species included in the Spanish Endangered Species List will have full protection; any action performed with the purpose of killing, capturing, or disturbing Angelsharks; as well as destruction or deterioration of Angelshark habitat and breeding areas; or processing, selling, transporting, trading or exchanging live or dead Angelsharks is prohibited. This protection is in addition to an existing European Union fisheries regulation which prohibits targeting, retention, trans-shipping or landing of Angelshark for all vessels fishing in EU waters.

It is a major milestone for the project and we are delighted that the Spanish Government has taken this action. It was the key missing piece in the protection puzzle, which can now unlock a whole suite of legislative and management measures to safeguard the future of this species in its unique stronghold.

The work now continues to build our knowledge of these sharks, so we can help make sure that any protection or management measures are informed by robust science. In particular, we need to know more about where Angelsharks gather to breed and nurture their young - known as the Angelsharks’ ‘critical habitats’. 

Our team have made some genuinely thrilling discoveries recently, which help us build our understanding of Angelshark ecology. One in particular had a project co-lead, David Jiménez Alvarado, a seasoned shark scientist, close to tears of amazement. Our team out surveying for juveniles in Fuerteventura spotted a gathering, or aggregation, of an estimated 120 adult sharks in one location. The local dive club had reported seeing big groups before, but this was the first time a scientific team had witnessed such an aggregation. The team were able to estimate the sex ration (10 females to 1 male) and managed to tag a number of them, which will help us to know whether they remain in this area or return after periods away. 

Another major moment came during nursery area survey work, when our Project Officers (Maria Belén Caro and Michael Sealey) witnessed an Angelshark giving birth for the first time after diving with this species for over 20 years. They were able to carefully measure the two pups they saw being born and we now have even more evidence of the importance of this beach for this species.  

Through the project we are testing a number of hypotheses on Angelshark ecology to hone our scientific investigation. Two major areas of research are: a) looking into the use of beaches across the archipelago as nursery areas (where Angelsharks give birth and juvenile Angelsharks grow) ; and b) gathering evidence of where adult Angelsharks move using visual tagging and acoustic telemetry, to see whether they show seasonal movements, as suggested by the diving community. Each time one of our tagged sharks passes close to one of the network of acoustic receivers we have installed in La Graciosa Marine Reserve, we can listen out for the device and build a fine-scale picture of how these sharks are using their environment.

We’re only halfway through our first year of the three-year grant from SCF and feel proud of how much we have achieved already. This major grant means we are able to significantly increase capacity of our team, get into the water more often and work with a larger number of stakeholders to safeguard the future of this incredible species in the Canary Islands. I can’t wait to get my headtorch back on and join the team on our next survey - maybe I’ll see you down on the shoreline soon!

A message from the Shark Conservation Fund: This project is a key example of implementation of one of SCF’s core objectives – to prevent extinctions of the most threatened shark and ray species. Your donation will help us advance this vital work to protect threatened sharks and rays.