Angels in Wales: How Harbor Porpoise Protection Also Safeguards Rare Angelsharks in Cardigan Bay

Words by Grace Brady with art by Theo Verden

With the awareness that biodiversity in the UK is declining at a rapid rate, governance and management strategies have been strongly employed to protect endemic species. Marine mammals, such as seals and dolphins, represent charismatic megafauna within UK waters, and they are also biologically significant to food webs. They have undergone population decline due to direct overexploitation, entanglement in equipment from commercial fishing activity, and raised levels of stress from marine and coastal noise pollution. Marine conservation areas can combat these threats and allow populations to flourish. Using the West Wales Marine Special Area of Conservation (SAC) as a case study, species-specific conservation can have repercussive effects that also safeguard other species without direct intention. 

The West Wales Marine SAC was formerly designated in February 2019 and encompasses Cardigan Bay, along the Irish Sea on the west coast of Wales. The SAC sought to bring special protection to the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), with management strategies in place to minimize any disturbances to the porpoises and their food sources. These include herring and other commercially desirable fish species, which historically caused harbour porpoises to become bycatch in Welsh fisheries. The SAC protections fall under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 and Conservation of Offshore Marine Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, helmed by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and Natural Resource Wales (NRW). This species-specific approach to conservation has ecosystem-wide impacts that positively bolster biodiversity for the entire region. The protection in the waters of Cardigan Bay has led to an increase in sightings of the critically endangered angelshark (Squatina squatina).  

S. squatina is the only species of angel shark found in British waters, out of 23 total species, and has experienced an observable decline since the 1970s. Angelsharks are predominantly seen in the Canary Islands, but have a range across the north Atlantic and Mediterranean. Due to their long gestational cycles (8-10 months) and bearing of live pups, angelsharks reproduce very slowly. This poses a threat to depleted populations facing anthropogenic and climatic pressures, which is why finding angelsharks in Special Areas of Protection is a positive sign for the Welsh population. There is a proposed migration pattern between Cardigan Bay and the Canary Islands for angelsharks, and further research on the Welsh angelshark population can reveal the validity of this migration hypothesis.  

On top of the West Wales Marine SAC, angelsharks are additionally safeguarded by the Wales Angelshark Action Plan which combines current observational research with citizen science and historical records to establish trends in angelshark distribution and abundance to better inform conservation decisions. This Action Plan highlights both the ecological and cultural significance of angelsharks in Welsh waters, which bolsters education and outreach for marine biodiversity across the UK at large. These governance objectives, combined with enforced management strategies, such as the West Wales Marine SAC, reveal a favourable future for Welsh angelshark populations. Therefore, marine protective measures create repercussive conservation effects, with both populations of harbour porpoises and angelsharks in Cardigan Bay. This strategy of highlighting and protecting a charismatic species through governance and management can positively impact the conservation efforts of other species, especially endangered and data-deficient elasmobranchs, many of whom could greatly benefit from special protections and public awareness.  

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