By John R. Platt
Just hours after the end of TV’s Shark Week, three endangered shark species got some very good news.
On Monday, July 13, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed that the common angel shark (Squatina squatina), sawback angel shark (S. aculeata) and smoothback angel shark (S. oculata) gain protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. All three species had previously been assessed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List.
Angel sharks are a group of 23 shallow-water species—the only members of the family Squantinidae—with eyes on top of their broad, flat heads. Most species live in temperate or tropical oceans. Like all angel sharks, the three species proposed for protection this week have been hard hit by commercial fishing, particularly trawling, which inadvertently traps and kills the bottom-dwelling sharks. All told, angel sharks are considered the second-most threatened family of sharks and related fishes, behind sawfish.
NMFS’s proposal comes in response to a 2013 petition from WildEarth Guardians that sought to protect 81 marine species, including corals, sea snakes, dolphins and fishes. The agency has since ruled that 54 of those species do not deserve Endangered Species Act protection. Two dozen other species are currently being evaluated, including two additional angel sharks, the Argentine angel shark (S. argentina) and the angular angel shark (S. guggenheim) The IUCN lists both of those species as endangered.
All five of these angel shark species have disappeared from much of their historic ranges over the past 50 years. The common angel shark, for example, is no longer very common. The IUCN says it is locally extinct in the North Sea and much of the Mediterranean and that it is “now undetectable throughout most of the remainder of its range, with the exception of the Canary Islands where effective conservation measures are required urgently.”
Sharks of almost all species are notoriously slow breeders, which greatly restricts their ability to bounce back from overfishing. The NMFS investigation into these species found that few existing regulations would protect them from fishing or other exploitation, especially because angel sharks do not have much commercial value and are usually thrown overboard after they are caught—an experience they rarely survive.
None of these five angel shark species live in U.S. waters, so protection under the Endangered Species Act wouldn’t do too much to help them directly unless anyone tried to import them into the country. It would, however, provide an additional tool to help the U.S. government in any efforts to maintain the health and biodiversity of oceans around the world, as the law makes it easier for the U.S. to target aid and other efforts to help listed species. It may also inspire other nations to pull up their nets and take on the mantle of protecting these rapidly disappearing species.