A project has been set up to ‘fill in the blanks’ about the history of the fish - with sightings old and new off the North Wales coast - and create a plan to safeguard them long-term. Jamie Bowman reports...

ONE of the world’s rarest sharks could be living off the Welsh coast and now scientists are asking for the public’s help to track down this elusive fish.

Angel sharks, which are flat bodied, spend much of the time camouflaged in the sediments on the seabed, where they lie in wait for their prey.

The creatures were once common across the east Atlantic and Mediterranean seas, but numbers declined because of habitat disturbance, pollution and incidental catch in fisheries.

But they have recently been reported off Cardigan Bay, the Bristol Channel and near Holyhead, and it’s thought they may have ventured as far north as the Conwy, Denbighshire and Flintshire coasts.

Last year the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Natural Resources Wales (NRW) launched ‘Angel Shark Project: Wales’ in order to build a clearer picture of where angel sharks are found in Welsh waters and to understand their role in Welsh maritime heritage.

Denbighshire Free Press:

As well as sightings, scientists are hoping history and culture could reveal crucial pieces of evidence used to unlock the mystery of angel sharks in Wales.

“It looks more like a skate or a ray than a shark,” explains project coordinator Jake Davies. “It camouflages itself in the sand really well and waits there to ambush its prey.

“Over the last 40 years its range has really decreased but we know that some are still found here off the Welsh coast and hopefully if we publicise it more and more people will be able to help us keep a record of sightings.

“The main stronghold for the species is the Canary Islands but we know from historic records that it has always been found off the Welsh coast but they only come close to shore during the summer season.

“What we want to investigate further is where they go in the winter season - they may still be here but we just don’t know, so getting this information may help us to work out if they’re here all year round.”

Denbighshire Free Press:

After appealing for information from fishermen and the local community, a number of photographs came to light showing that the shark was prized as a catch in the 1970s and 1980s, before it became a protected species.

“They’re not easy to see but we’ve had reports from snorklers and accidental catches from fishermen,” says Mr Davies. “It’s really important for us that people who grew up in and around fishing communities tell us about a time in the past someone may have caught an angel shark or even seen one.

“We have some old textbooks in Latin dating back to 1556 and they have illustrations of the shark and we also have some old newspaper cuttings from 1850 from Wales which describe people accidentally catching this fish and it was thought to be so strange they would exhibit it on the beach and get people to pay to come and see them. It’s been really cool seeing this timeline of the shark wend its way through Welsh culture.”

Spotting an angel shark off the North Wales coast may be unlikely but Mr Davies insists it is not beyond the realms of possibility.

“Through our data collection we have records of them along the North Wales coast especially around Anglesey,” he adds. “It’s certainly not impossible that someone snorkelling might spot one all along the majority of the coast.

Denbighshire Free Press:

“I’m a keen diver and I spend most of my summer diving, so I’ll be running the dives that will be looking for the angel shark, hopefully we get as many snorkellers as we can looking out for them.”

Travelling across Wales, a unique roadshow will not only highlight the importance of the charismatic angel shark but also seek information from local communities, to better understand the species.

The knowledge will be used by ZSL and NRW scientists to identify important angel shark habitats and investigate how their numbers might have changed over time.

The roadshows are open for all to attend and conservationists hope this novel approach to species research - bringing together community memories alongside fishing records - will provide a much-needed insight into the history of one of the world’s most threatened sharks.

Joanna Barker, angel shark project manager at ZSL said: “We are asking people across Wales to help us understand more about this important shark’s historic range and its Welsh cultural connection.

“Someone might have an old photograph in the drawer, a memory of their grandfather fishing or possibly even be able to tell us about a recent sighting of an angel shark.

“Even if people haven’t ever heard of an angel shark, we’d love them to come along and tell us about the local area - changes in local industry, fishing practices or infrastructure could all help us to fill in the blanks of the angel shark’s history and create the best plan of action to safeguard them into the future.”

Each angel shark roadshow is free to drop in, with no booking required. The roadshow will remain in each town for two days. To learn more about the events and where they are being held, please contact angelsharks@zsl.org or visit www.angelsharknetwork.com/wales or just drop in at an angel shark Roadshow near you