Saving our jaw-some sharks for the future
Sea Deep is a new shark conservation project led by Ulster Wildlife with support from National Lottery Heritage Fund. Working alongside sea anglers, schools and community groups, we want to help safeguard the future of our endangered sharks, skates and rays in our local seas.
From tagging sharks at sea to hunting for their egg cases on the shore, we are training and equipping volunteers to help identify important spawning and nursery grounds, so we can target our conservation efforts.
Are there really sharks around Northern Ireland?
Yes, there are at least twenty sharks and rays in our local seas, from the Common Skate, the largest in the world reaching three meters in length, to the Spurdog which can live for up to 70 years. Some species live here all of the time, while others pass through on a longer migration. Our seas also contain important spawning areas and nursery grounds for young shark pups.
Are our local sharks dangerous?
Sharks have picked up a bad reputation over the years! Our local sharks and rays enjoy a diet of fish like herring, mackerel and whiting, as well as octopus, shrimps and crabs. However, like with any wild animal, we need to be careful when working closely with them at sea. That’s why our tagging techniques prioritise the safety of both the angler and the fish.
Which of our local sharks and rays are endangered?
Unfortunately, some of our local species are now classed as Threatened, Endangered or Critically Endangered, meaning that there are very few left in our seas. These include Tope (Threatened), Spurdog (Endangered), Common Skate (Critically Endangered) and Porbeagle (Critically Endangered). The conservation status of these animals has been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the world's most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of plant and animal species. A specific assessment for the sharks, skates and rays around Ireland was published in 2016
Why are some of our local sharks and rays endangered?
Sharks, skates and rays are some of the most vulnerable animals in our seas. They are typically long-lived, slow to mature and have a low reproductive rate which reduces the capacity of the population to recover if damaged.
For example, our local Spurdog can live up to 70 years old but females don’t begin to reproduce until they are at least 15. When they do, they have relatively small litters of pups which take between 18 months and two years to develop within the mother. This is one of the longest pregnancies known for any animal in the world! The females tend to stick together in packs, which means that a large number can be lost from the local population at one time if they are damaged by human activities at sea, such as being accidentally caught in fishing gear.
Our egg-laying species, like the Bullhuss shark, or the Blonde Ray, Cuckoo Ray and Thornback Ray, deposit their eggs in shallower coastal waters. These areas are also used as nursery grounds for young shark pups and juvenile skates and rays. Unfortunately, our inshore waters and sea loughs are also some of the busiest areas in our seas, with dredging for shipping channels, fishing grounds and underwater cables. These areas are also the most likely to be affected by pollution from land run-off.
How are these species protected around Northern Ireland?
Currently, there is very little protection for the sharks, skates and rays around our coasts. This is largely due to the lack of information we have about our local species. We need more records on their presence and movement to be able to implement management measures that will help them to recover. There are currently three species - the Basking Shark, the Common Skate and the Angel Shark - included in the NI Wildlife Order which makes it an offence to target them without a license.
Does tagging hurt the animals?
We use best practice methods that have been developed over years of conservation tagging work with sea anglers in Scotland and England. These focus on correct handling and tagging techniques to ensure the animal is not unduly stressed and returned to the water quickly. We never tag an animal that is in poor condition or pregnant.
I prefer staying on dry land! Can I still join in?
Yes! Everyone is welcome to take part in Sea Deep and help to conserve these endangered animals. Take a look at our events page for more information on activities near you. Join us this summer and help to identify potential nursery areas by hunting for shark egg cases along the shore. You can also spread the word about this project and the importance of our local sharks, skates and rays by following us on Twitter and Instagram or joining the Living Seas NI facebook page to get involved in our marine conservation work.
About Ulster Wildlife
Sea Deep is a new initiative delivered by Ulster Wildlife. With help from our members and supporters, we protect wildlife and wild places near you, stand up for our seas and inspire people about nature on their doorstep. As a charity, we couldn’t carry out our work for wildlife across Northern Ireland without people like you who love wildlife. Why not join us today and help nature thrive?
Sea Deep is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Thanks to National Lottery players, the Heritage Fund invests money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife.