Jan. 25 (UPI) -- Numerous sightings suggest a population of Atlantic angel sharks, one of the world's rarest shark species, is living off the coast of Wales.
The waters surrounding Spain's Canary Islands are the only confirmed safe haven for the endangered species, Squatina squatina. But sightings on several fishing boats suggest there are several angel sharks living just off the Welsh coast. In recent years, a few fishing boats have accidentally caught angel shark specimens.
The flat-shaped bottom-dweller was once abundant in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, but the population shrank as a result of habitat disturbance and pollution. Many angel sharks were also accidentally caught and killed by commercial fishing boats using gill nets.
The species, a member of a unique and ancient shark lineage, was listed as critically endangered in 2010.
"If we lose the angel shark, we lose a really important lineage of evolutionary history that we can't get from any other shark species," Joanna Barker, scientists with the Zoological Society of London, told BBC News.
The angel sharks have mostly been spotted in Cardigan Bay and Bristol Channel, and scientists have plans to investigate their presence there. DNA samples could help scientists determine whether the sharks are a unique population or are moving back and forth between Wales and the Canary Islands.
Some researchers think angel shark sightings may be underreported, as fishers worry that admitting to accidental catches will result in punishment.
"We want to dispel that feeling and let people know that it's fine to come forward and record these sightings," Ben Wray, a marine ecologist at Natural Resources Wales, told The Week. "This data will be vital in building a clearer picture of the status and ecology of angel sharks in Wales as well as informing the Wales angel shark action plan, which we hope will help guide the project towards success."
Conservationists in Wales are working to raise awareness about the species. Through education and engagement, scientists with the Angel Shark Network hope to encourage people to share stories of angel shark sightings. Researchers also hope to uncover old family photos of angel shark catches in order to better establish the boundaries of the species historical range along the Welsh coast.