Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (AKD), partners on the Endangered Landscapes Programme supported Gökova Bay to Cape Gelidonya project, have been involved in the dramatic rescue and release of a critically endangered angel shark that was accidentally caught in a local fisher’s nets. This incident highlights the importance of cooperation between restoration practitioners and local communities.
The shark was caught in Gökova Bay, a marine protected area on Turkey’s picturesque Turquoise Coast, by Atıf Ölmez, a small-scale fisher from Akbük. Atıf was participating in a fishing trip alongside the AKD team, who were in the process of securing footage for a film project focused on invasive species. The crew was fishing for non-native lionfish, a species that AKD is trying to control through an innovative enterprise. The angel shark was caught as a non-target species and it was a huge surprise when it was hauled aboard. The critically endangered fish was quickly freed from the net and released back into the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.
Atıf’s daughter, Ayşenur Ölmez, who became Turkey’s first woman marine ranger when she joined AKD in July 2022, is also a local fisher. Fortunately, she was also in her father’s boat during the filming of the fishing trip, and was able to help him heave the mighty angel shark back into the sanctuary of the Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean waters around Turkey are an important nursery and breeding ground for sharks, but these are vulnerable to illegal fishing and accidental by-catch. Gökova Bay, 600 kilometres south-west of Ankara, is the main nursery ground for the Mediterranean population of the endangered sandbar shark and crucial to the survival prospects of this species. Historically, the bay’s deeper waters were known to harbour angel sharks, but the lack of sightings in recent years had led conservationists to fear the worst.
Working with community rangers, AKD manages, patrols and monitors Gökova’s six designated no-fishing zones – including suspected shark hotspots – to protect sharks and their prey from fishing pressure and from disturbance caused by high boat traffic during the tourist season.
Angel sharks are among the world’s most threatened sharks. They are an incredibly rare sight in the Mediterranean – so rare that that the AKD can’t remember the last time they encountered one. This particular shark would almost certainly have escaped notice too if it hadn’t been unfortunate enough to find its way into a fishing net. For a ‘small’ shark, it was an impressive specimen, measuring around two metres long and probably tipping the scales at over 30 kilos.
İlkay Kavak, Communications Specialist at AKD, was a member of the team that participated in the fishing trip, and could barely contain her excitement at this close and completely unexpected encounter with one of the Mediterranean’s rarest species: “I consider myself extremely lucky to have encountered an angel shark in the wild.”
Unlike many sharks that range widely throughout the ocean, the angel shark is a relatively sedentary fish. It can be found in sandy seabeds – where it lies partially concealed and beautifully camouflaged – in order to ambush passing prey, which it captures with a quick snap of its extendable jaws and needle-sharp teeth.
Angel sharks were once common in European waters, but have suffered a dramatic decline in recent decades. The population in the Mediterranean is at grave risk of extinction, so the rescue and release of this one fish was a crucial intervention.
Most of the world’s sharks and rays have been overharvested to the brink of extinction. In many cases, they are actively targeted for their meat and fins, but accidental entanglement in fishing nets can also prove deadly, as was almost the case here.
The entire episode is a wonderful example of the cooperation between conservationists and community, and vindicates the efforts of AKD to engage local fishers in the protection of their coastal waters, supported by the Endangered Landscapes Programme.
This is not the first time that AKD’s marine conservation efforts have been in the spotlight recently. Earlier this year, AKD’s founder and president, Zafer Kızılkaya, was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in recognition of his achievements as a long-term guardian of Turkey’s coastal waters.
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