Another Life: Rays and sharks in danger of extinction in Irish waters

Michael Viney: Rays were once the standard diet of Dublin’s Ringsend, dubbed ‘Raytown’

Thornback Ray: 'We wanted their wings to eat, not the whole heavy fish.' Illustration: Michael Viney

Thornback Ray: 'We wanted their wings to eat, not the whole heavy fish.' Illustration: Michael Viney

 

On a fine, calm dawn in early summer there might be two or three thornback rays on the line, flapping helplessly as I hauled them into the sand. Their marbled eyes glared up at me as I knelt to stab and dismember.

We wanted their wings to eat, not the whole heavy fish, and, having carved these out, I left the rest for the hovering gulls. The 50-hook spillet, baited with mackerel and set out between the tides, was an occasional, if sometimes remorseful, success among our past ventures in “alternative” living.

Today, the supermarket’s fish are delivered in chilled and deracinated portions, the sweet wings of ray a mere memory. The whole elasmobranch family, indeed, are the subject of deep scientific concern, with some at the edge of extinction in Irish waters.

Elasmobranchs are fish with cartilaginous skeletons, nature’s lightweight plastic instead of bones, and Ireland’s seas are important for having a great many kinds. Our 71 different species range hugely in size, from the far-ranging basking shark, through blue and porbeagle sharks, to the rays and dogfish of coastal shallows.

The kite-shaped thornback ray, up to a metre long, is the most common around Ireland and “of least concern”, its human handling made difficult by the sharp, curved barbs on its back. The common stingray, on the other hand, which shares its inshore waters, is reckoned “near threatened” and in need of more research.

The bestselling ray historically, the common skate, is the largest in the world, with a wingspan of up to 2 metres

Both were once the standard diet of the families of Dublin’s Ringsend fishing village – dubbed “Raytown” in the city for that reason and disdained for its “pissy” smell.

Its story has warranted a recent study by Dr Cordula Scherer, a Trinity College Dublin researcher in environmental humanities. Rejected elsewhere in Ireland, she says, ray became a staple food for the people of Ringsend from the early 19th century, when it was landed as a by-catch following the introduction of beam trawlers.

The distinctive “pissy” smell of the village came from ammonia evaporating from the ray wings hung out to dry in the narrow streets. They would, reportedly, stay edible for six months or more. The fish oils of rays and skates were also strongly credited with healing powers (more at environmentandsociety.org).

The bestselling ray historically, the common skate, is the largest in the world, with a wingspan of up to 2 metres. It was overfished into rarity in the early 1900s and by the 1970s was considered “extirpated” from the Irish Sea. Today it embraces two different species, the blue and flapper skates, both considered “critically endangered” and deliberate fishing for “skate” is still illegal within six nautical miles of Northern Ireland.

The slow reproduction of Irish elasmobranchs has been one handicap in their survival, notably for the inshore angel shark, Squatina squatina

Catch-and-release now applies to all the Irish rays and skates – a surprising 34 species in the list compiled by Dr Declan Quigley for a new booklet published by the Irish Elasmobranch Group. This speaks for the many marine scientists concerned with the role of sharks, skates and rays as top predators in ocean ecosystems.

The booklet is attractive and most informative, even advising on how to lift and hold its subjects if tagging them aboard. Like the smaller, more manageable sharks, skates and rays should be lifted “under mid-body and base of the tail”. I would add caution against inserting one’s finger in the innocent-seeming mouth on the underside, which is meant for crushing crabs and has the grip of a teething baby.

Many beachcombing readers will already have found the dark, horned egg-cases of skates and rays, their variety well illustrated in the booklet. More reports and pictures are welcomed at marinedimensions.ie to add to the research.

The slow reproduction of Irish elasmobranchs has been one handicap in their survival, notably for the inshore angel shark, Squatina squatina. This oddly shaped, flattened, bottom-dwelling shark (often known around Ireland as the fiddle fish) was once a target species for anglers seeking the biggest specimens.

It is now reckoned “critically endangered” and protection brings no more than rare sightings, even on favourite, sandy grounds such as those in Tralee Bay.

The culture of angling has responded well to the need for catch-and-release conservation and the co-operative tagging of rare species. Leaving aside the deliberate, reckless commercial fishing of sharks on the high seas, often merely for their fins, the big threat to elasmobranchs around Ireland is as by-catch in the nets of trawlers fishing for other species.

The Irish Elasmobranch Group points to the recent discovery of a deepwater shark nursery at a cold-water coral reef off the west of Ireland as showing the value of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Fifteen bays around the coast are also nominated as MPAs, but still unfortunately lack active management for conservation.

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