Pacific angel shark (Squatina californica)

GenusSquatina (1)
SizeLength: up to 152 cm (2)

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Superficially, the Pacific angel shark resembles a large ray more than a shark, due to its remarkably flat body and huge, wing-like pectoral fins. Its skin is pale beige, scattered with dense small, brown spots, offering perfect camouflage in sandy habitats (3). Small spines that are prominent in young sharks on the back and tail are small or absent on adults. Fleshy projections (nasal barbels) with broad, flat tips, hang down near the nostrils, and are used to taste and feel. The large head is concave between the eyes (2) (4).

Occurs in the eastern Pacific, from south-eastern Alaska to the Gulf of California, and Ecuador to southern Chile (2).

The Pacific angel shark inhabits cold to warm-temperate waters, at depths down to 200 meters. It generally occurs in waters over sandy and muddy bottoms, and is also often observed around rocks, and sometimes near kelp forests (2) (4).

Like other members of this family, the Pacific angel shark spends its days lying partially buried in sand or mud, snapping up its head and protruding its jaws at a surprising speed to ambush prey, such as bottom-dwelling fishes and squids. Whilst it does not pose a great danger to humans, its habit of lurching out to grab prey with its powerful jaws and needle-sharp teeth, can also be employed if touched or provoked, inflicting a serious bite on the diver (2). The Pacific angel shark becomes active at night, although does not swim long distances, when it will forage under the cover of darkness, thus still retaining the advantage of ambushing prey (4).

The Pacific angel shark is an ovoviviparous fish; the embryos develop inside eggs that remain within the mother’s body for nine to ten months until they hatch. Females produce litters of six to ten pups, of which only 20 percent are likely to survive to reach maturity at 10 to 13 years old (4).

Around 1980 the Pacific angel shark became the subject of an expanding gillnet fishery off southern California. The shark was captured for its meat for human consumption, and became a highly sought after food (2). Catches peaked in 1985 and 1986, and then declined rapidly (5). This fishery not only threatened the survival of the Pacific angel shark, but also impacted many other marine species that are incidentally caught in the drift gillnets, including large numbers of California sea lions, harbour seals, and cormorants (6). Restrictions on gillnet fishing in the region, implemented in the early 1990s, are thought to have prevented a total population collapse of the Pacific angel shark (4) (5). Elsewhere, the Pacific angel shark is taken as by-catch, such as in the shrimp bottom-trawl fishery, where it ends up being processed with other fishes for fishmeal (2). The slow reproductive rate and late maturation of the Pacific angel shark makes it particularly vulnerable to such exploitation.

In 1991, depth restrictions were implemented in central Californian fisheries, which banned fishing inshore of 55 meters, and in 1994, area closures restricted set gillnets to waters greater than 5.5 kilometres from the southern California mainland. A year-round ban on gill nets inshore of 110 meters was implemented between Point Reyes and Point Arguello, California, in 2002; however this closure is currently being challenged by fishermen. These measures have resulted in a discernible decrease in fishing effort in the angel shark fishery, and may allow depleted populations a chance to recover (6). By-catch is a global problem that continues to threaten the Pacific angel shark and many other marine species. Many organizations are working to stop the use of particularly damaging fishing methods, develop technology to reduce by-catch, and create marine reserves where marine species are safe from this ubiquitous threat (7).

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  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2010)