EU scientists advise angel shark protection, shark & ray fishing controls

New ICES advice on bottom-dwelling sharks and rays includes calls for new fishing limits and protections for several endangered species.

EU scientists advise angel shark protection, shark & ray fishing controls

The Shark Alliance is highlighting dramatic new findings for Northeast Atlantic sharks and rays from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), the body responsible for formulating scientific advice for European Union (EU) fishery managers.  ICES new status report for bottom-dwelling (“demersal”) sharks and rays calls for fully protecting angel sharks and white skates, ending targeted fishing for common skates and undulate rays, and holding catches of a variety of currently unregulated rays, dogfish and smoothhounds to current levels. The advice provides the impetus that the European Commission needs to propose fishery restrictions for these species.

Most striking are ICES’ warnings of severe depletion and local extinction of the angel shark, now absent from recent surveys and protected only in English waters.  ICES recommends that this species receive the “highest possible protection” throughout the Celtic and North Seas, English Channel and Skagerrak and notes a high chance for survival if released.   The findings and advice are nearly identical for white skate in the Celtic Seas.  Scientists warn that these two species are likely just as threatened in southerly European seas. The IUCN has long categorized Northeast Atlantic angel sharks and white skates as Critically Endangered.  The ICES declaration underscores those conclusions and provides a firm basis from which the European Commission can and should act.

ICES also advises prohibiting targeted fishing and minimizing bycatch for now depleted “common” skates and undulate rays throughout the Celtic and North Seas. Scientists stress the need to protect the largest individuals in ray populations and stated that a maximum length of 100 cm for all such species would benefit common skate.

For a variety of rays and several populations of dogfish and smoothhounds, ICES suggests maintaining the status quo and closely monitoring fisheries.  For the Bay of Biscay and Iberian waters, ICES advises that landings of skates and rays (collectively) and lesser spotted dogfish (separately) in 2009 be held to or reduced from recent landings. 

There are currently no EU catch limits for the demersal sharks assessed in the latest ICES reports (spiny dogfish and deepwater shark catches are loosely limited). There are no EU catch limits for skates and rays in the Celtic Seas, Bay of Biscay or Iberian waters. EU catch of North Sea skates and rays was first limited in 1999; after several reductions, this limit is finally low enough to restrict fishing. 

ICES scientists stress the need for species-specific shark and ray landings data, which are essential for population assessment. They also note that, although subject to some directed fishing, these species are usually caught incidentally as “bycatch” and would benefit from a reduction in overall bottom fishing.

Remarking on this latest ICES advice, Shark Alliance Policy Director, Sonja Fordham, said “It is unthinkable that angel sharks are literally going extinct off Europe and yet, outside of English waters, they remain completely unprotected.  Armed with this solid scientific advice, the European Commission and individual Member States must now use all the tools available to prevent the complete loss of this remarkable species, beginning with banning angel shark landings by 2009.  Several endangered rays also urgently need protection from overfishing while capping several shark and ray fisheries now, as advised, can prevent additional disasters for Europe’s ecosystems and fishermen.”

Notes to Editors:

The Shark Alliance is a coalition of 51 conservation, scientific and recreational organizations dedicated to restoring and conserving shark populations by improving EU fishing policies.

Sharks and rays typically grow slowly, mature late and produce few young, making them very susceptible to overfishing.  Large species such as common skate, white skate, and angel shark are particularly vulnerable.

The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Shark Specialist Group categorizes the conservation status of sharks and rays according to criteria for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

There were insufficient data for ICES scientists to formulate advice for blonde, sandy, and shagreen rays as well as some populations of cuckoo and thornback rays.

The full ICES reports are available at

Shark Alliance summaries of the ICES reports for Northeast Atlantic demersal sharks and rays are available.

All ICES advice will be evaluated by the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) in mid-July.  STECF recommendations form the basis for the European Commission’s proposals for annual fishing limits which are decided by the Council of Fisheries Ministers in November and/or December each year.

The Commission press release outlining the approach to 2009 fishing limits is available at

Earlier this year, ICES reiterated its warnings that Northeast Atlantic spiny dogfish (spurdog) sharks are in danger of collapse and no catches should be allowed, a recommendation previously endorsed by the STECF.  This year, ICES added a recommendation for a maximum landing size of 100 cm, should spurdog landings be allowed.  EU spurdog catch is limited but not nearly to extent advised by scientists.

ICES and STECF have also recommended no fishing for the large, oceanic porbeagle shark; ICES is expected to update this advice in the autumn. The first EU porbeagle catch limit was imposed in 2008 at a level on par with recent landings. 

The European Commission is currently developing an overdue Community Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of sharks.