Sharks Thrive in the Heart of a Popular Vacation Hub

The Canary Islands have become a haven for these rare fish.

Jul 20, 2023
Sharks Thrive in the Heart of a Popular Vacation Hub | The Canary Islands have become a haven for these rare fish.

Who knew that the sapphire-tipped waves fringing Playa de Las Teresitas, an artificial sandy beach created in the 1950s with Saharan sand and a sheltering breakwater on Tenerife’s rocky, volcanic coast to tempt more tourists to the sunshine of the Canary Islands, would later take on a key conservation role. But today, they have become the magical cover for a nursery for the elusive and endangered angel shark, as Smithsonian Magazine reports. 

These subtropical islands, formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, are provinces of Spain, and comprise an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, 67 miles off the northwest African mainland. And as well as a popular winter vacation destination for sunseekers, the islands’ sheltered waters have become a sanctuary and popular breeding area for endangered angel sharks. These small, ray-like sharks are a magnet for both marine biologists and nature tourists, offering them the chance to see mature angel sharks in the Canaries.

More about angel sharks
Angel sharks are not considered dangerous to humans, with only 11-inch shark babies likely to give a small nip to people accidently stepping on them on the beach, according to the Scubanana blog. Furthermore, following a spate of “gummings” or nips from angel sharks when people returned to the shallow waters by the beaches after the recent pandemic, as the Smithsonian Magazine outlines, angel sharks in paddling areas now head into deeper water earlier in the day to avoid interactions with humans.

These little sharks got their name because their fins are reminiscent of angel wings, according to a blog on Dressel Divers. You can distinguish them from rays because they have five-gill slits on the sides of the head at the top, while rays have them under their bodies. These ocean-floor, nocturnal feeders also have barbels, a type of mustache made up of sensory organs, helping them detect prey.

Why have angel sharks become endangered?
As the Facebook page of the Angel Shark Project reveals, the smaller angel sharks found locally, aka Squatina squatina (squatinidae is Latin for kind of shark, reveals campaign group Save Our Seas), were once common across the Eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, Save Our Seas explains that they even extended into Scandinavian waters.

However, the angel shark population has declined by over 80 percent in recent decades as these sharks are especially vulnerable to human impact through habitat loss and accidental fishing which pushed the species close to extinction by the early 1970s, reports Smithsonian Magazine. The reason for this depletion is their habit of living close to the bottom of the ocean, making them easily caught both in direct fisheries and incidentally as by-catch, which has led to severe overfishing. 

Their dwindling population has meant that angel sharks are now classified as “Critically Endangered” on the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Protecting these elusive ocean treasures of the Canary Islands
Significantly, as the Smithsonian Magazine reveals, biologists only became aware that the Canaries host a substantial angel shark population a decade ago, in 2014.

This exciting finding led the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig in Bonn, and the Zoological Society of London to establish the Angel Shark Project (ASP). The stated aim of its branch in the Canary Islands is to “Secure the future of the critically endangered angel shark in its unique stronghold of the Canary Islands.” 

Why are the Canary Islands a haven for these popular, bottom-dwelling, small sharks, or as Save Our Seas puts it, now “the only location where the common angel shark can be found with any regularity”?  The answer, according to Michael Sealey, a marine biologist with the ASP in Tenerife speaking to the Smithsonian Magazine, is that: “bottom trawling has never been as viable in the Canaries as in most of Europe and the Mediterranean. The seabed is mostly too deep… the underwater topography laced with jagged seamounts and reefs where fishing gear can get caught up.” In addition, the European Commission halted all trawling in the Canaries in 2005.

The multidisciplinary ASP initiative collects ecological and population data while engaging with local communities, researchers and governments to deliver conservation action. This takes in  annual angel shark counts by divers, the collection of information on the sharks’ nursery and mating areas and the tagging of the fish by trained divers in the sea, as well as work centralizing the sightings coming in from divers and fishers on a sighting map, and regularly analyzing this data from citizen science. It also strives to heighten awareness.

A good example of this public awareness work is apparent in the new posters erected at the entrance to local beaches to inform Canarians and tourists that angel sharks frequent this area for breeding, and asking them to respect this critically endangered species

Members of the public are also invited to become citizen scientists themselves. Through these posters, visitors can collaborate with the conservation work by registering their sightings through the QR code present on them.

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Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.