Tales from Marine Protected Areas

Dr Lou Luddington is a marine biologist, nature photographer and writer living aboard a sailboat, Noctiluca, on the move and exploring marine protected areas. 

Words & photograph by Lou Luddington

Scanning the seabed beneath me I spotted the unmistakable side-to-side swish and glide of a shark. This one was flat and the colour of speckled sand: an angelshark. Wonder flushed through me. The shark slinked along, the sinuous rhythm of muscles carving a path through the water. When the sway halted, it dropped gently to the sand. Inhaling deeply I hinged into a duckdive and sank to some boulders a few metres behind it. Inching closer I marvelled at its perfection of design and colouration. Casting my eyes along its tail I noticed the set of claspers; only male sharks are endowed with these appendages, a modified portion of the pelvic fins used to deliver sperm to the female during mating. With its highly tuned senses of hearing, sight and electromagnetism I wondered what he made of me. Whatever the sensation he decided to move along and lifted off from the sand. My brief encounter was deeply affecting and left me eager to learn more about this peculiar shark.

The angelshark is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It was once widespread throughout the eastern Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea but populations have declined by more than 80% in the last 50 years. With greater numbers than anywhere else in its range, the Canary Islands are a unique stronghold for the species. Here, they are protected by the Spanish Endangered Species List for Canary Island waters, legislation that makes it illegal to disturb, capture or kill the sharks or damage their habitat. My sighting was from a blissful week or so freediving from the sailing boat that my husband Tom and I now call home, anchored on the east coast of La Graciosa. This island lies in the north of the Canary Islands and is part of the Chinijo Archipelago Marine Reserve, one of Europe’s largest Marine Protected Areas (MPA) covering an area of 70,700 hectares. Within this area is a small no-take zone of about 12 square kilometres where only research with special permits is allowed; in the rest of the MPA hook and line fishing, tuna-bait seining, recreational fishing and scuba diving are permitted. La Graciosa is home to a traditional fishing community and is the only inhabited island within the MPA. Since the late 1990s small-scale tourism has blossomed and lowered the importance of fishing to the local economy.

Our observations certainly made us curious about how the MPA was being managed. Everyday we saw recreational boats and scores of tourists on the shore fishing with rods and lines. In places underwater there were many long-spined sea urchins, munching away, collectively denuding the rocks of life with their self-sharpening teeth. High numbers are a sign of imbalance in the seabed communities; removal of the larger, predatory fish species desirable to sport and commercial fishers allow their numbers to skyrocket. The result is barren rock scraped bare of seaweeds and encrusting animals. When we called at the marina for water and asked the young marinero about fishing he said “you must have a licence,” and then with a knowing wink, “…or you go at night to avoid the police.”

Sculpted by ancient volcanic activity the underwater scenery within the marine protected areas is spectacular. Great swathes of rock drawn up into plateaus and walls and carved into tubes and archways. Swirling through this scene were huge shoals of white sea bream, salema and barracuda, while tucked into crevices we found octopus, moray eels and starfish. Several species of stingray flapped over the seabed and of course critically endangered angelsharks concealed themselves beneath the sand, coolly slinking off to the depths when we swam down to see them.

Issue Sixteen
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This feature appears in ISSUE 16: Bio-logging blue sharks of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Sixteen
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_rolex
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_rolex

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