Endangered Species Day 2020 – the oceans

Basking shark

Endangered Species Day is an opportunity to celebrate and learn about endangered species and how to protect them

Hundreds of marine species across the world come under the categories of Endangered and Critically Endangered. This status is determined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), who consider the probability of their extinction, from least concern to extinct.

We’ll take a quick look at just five of those species here, ones you might find in British waters.

1. Basking shark

Basking shark feeding
Basking shark feeding | Image: Jidanchaomian

Status: Vulnerable

Basking sharks were once hunted for their liver oil but they’re now protected in UK waters. Basking sharks occasionally entangle and drown in fishing nets, but data suggests their population in UK waters may be recovering.

Because of its size, their very large fins are valuable in international trade to Eastern Asia. Shark finning is the wasteful practice of cutting off a sharks fins and discarding its carcass at sea – due to there being no interest in its meat. Shark fins are of high value due to its traditional, luxurious status in Chinese cuisine. The strong demand for fins is contributing to the fishing pressure on shark populations around the world.

Did you know?

  • They feed on plankton, filtering 2,000 cubic metres of water per hour through their gills!
  • Despite their size, basking sharks are harmless to humans.
  • In summer months, when we are most likely to see them, basking sharks move slowly at the sea surface, feeding on plankton with their characteristic wide-gaped open mouths. This gives the impression they are basking in the sun, hence the name ‘basking shark’.

2. Common Skate

Common skate
Common skate | Image: Davy Holt

Status: Critically Endangered

Sadly, there is no longer anything common about the common skate. Once abundant, this ‘manta ray of the north’ has become very rare in UK shallow seas and in European waters.

Decades of overfishing have damaged miles of delicate seabed habitats that fish such as this rely on. And the common skate has a very low resilience to fishing pressure – its large body size means that it can be caught in fishing nets even from birth.

Fortunately, landing common skate is now prohibited in EU waters. Since 2009, all these skate caught in the EU must be returned to the sea unharmed where possible. Common skate is also the subject of a Biodiversity Action Plan which aims to stabilise populations by minimising fishing mortality and legally protect it. However, there are no designated sites in the North Sea to protect common skate.

Did you know?

  • The common skate is often seen travelling in groups of the same sex and age, close to the sea floor.
  • They usually mate in the spring and during copulation there is a distinct embrace between the couple.
  • They have between 40 and 56 rows of teeth.
  • This is the largest species of skate.
  • Skates will “fly” up from the sea bed and wrap themselves round fish before eating them.
  • Baby skate hatches from an egg case called a Mermaid’s Purse.

3. European Eel 

European Eel

Status: Critically Endangered

Eels have long been mysterious creatures, and we still have much to learn. They are a key component of UK and European ecology but their numbers are plummeting and in some places they have disappeared completely.

The Sargasso Sea (North Atlantic ocean) is considered to be their most likely spawning ground – and the distance between the Sargasso Sea breeding sites and the UK is 7,000km!

European eels are not farmed like some other species, instead the process involves catching juvenile eels (elvers) from the wild and growing them in captivity. This form of aquaculture is called ranching. Eel ranching contributes to the depletion of endangered wild stocks and does not provide a farmed alternative to reduce pressure on wild stocks.

Did you know?

  • The species arrives in the UK as young eels, (elvers), in the spring.
  • Elvers are so transparent that you can read a newspaper through them!
  • Five of the 27 newly designated Marine Conservation Zones in English waters have been established to protect European eels and their habitats.

4. Short-snouted Seahorse

Short-snouted Seahorse

Status: Data Deficient

More information is needed to understand how threatened seahorses are in UK waters. Seahorses are occasionally caught as bycatch in fishing nets, while some seagrass habitat is under threat from development and anchoring damage.

Two of the 27 recently-designated Marine Conservation Zones in English seas were set up to protect short-snouted seahorses and their habitats.

Globally, seahorses are used in traditional Asian medicine, in a trade that takes millions of animals each year. They are also sold dried as curios and taken live for the aquarium trade. Aquarium collection used to occur in Weymouth Bay and the Channel Islands but seahorses are now protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Did you know?

  • Seahorses are not fast swimmers – their small, delicate fins propel them, but they use their prehensile tails to help them move through their complex habitats
  • Despite its unconventional appearance, the short snouted sea horse is a type of fish and is related to pipefish and sea dragons.
  • They are faithful to their partners – although not necessarily for life.
  • They use their tails to anchor themselves to plants.
  • Using its short snout, it sucks up plankton such as copepods and other small crustaceans and is incredibly stealthy in its ambush.
  • It’s the males that carry the eggs and young in their bellies and birth contractions can last up to 12 hours!

5. European Sturgeon

European Sturgeon

Status: Critically Endangered

European sturgeon were once known as Common sturgeon however, there is now just one population left in the whole continent, and that too is declining with only 20 – 750 mature fish left in the wild.

The sturgeon was an important commercial fish until the beginning of the 20th century when populations crashed. Prior to this, juvenile sturgeon were harvested as animal food in Poland and Germany.

This species of sturgeon now breeds only in one location, the Garonne River in France, where it last spawned in 1994. Bycatch is the major threat and the extraction of gravel in the Garonne is also a potential threat to the species. Dam construction, pollution and river regulation have led to loss and degradation of spawning sites. In recent years there has been substantial stocking, but these fish will not reproduce until around 2016.

Under UK law, whales and sturgeons are ‘royal fish’, and when taken become the personal property of the monarch of the United Kingdom, although the Queen rarely accepts sturgeon when they are offered.

The sturgeon is occasionally found in British seas now, however throughout the 19th century there were numerous records of its occurrence far up British rivers, which suggests that spawning may have taken place in the larger British rivers at one time.

Did you know?

  • The sturgeon was common over 200 years ago in large UK rivers including the Severn, Avon, Ouse, some Scottish rivers and the Thames, with remnants of sturgeon found in the medieval remains of Westminster Abbey.
  • The magnificent, pre-historic sturgeon, known for its caviar, is now as endangered as the black rhino.
  • Fossilised sturgeons have been found in deposits dating over 54 million years old. They possess many primitive features, including a heterocercal tail (the spine continuing along the upper lobe), a cartilaginous skeleton, and a spiral valve in the lower intestine.
  • The head is covered with hard bony plates that meet to form visible seams.
  • In September 2013, two boys caught a sturgeon near Pembroke Dock.

Ocean Desk Make Waves (title graphic)

Overfishing – what you can do…

Make Positive Consumer Choices. Choosing sustainable fish helps protect fish stocks, here’s how you can help.

MSC ecolabel

Buy seafood with this logo on the packet. The well-established Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification is used for wild fish. Their blue tick label indicates that a fish comes from sustainable waters, is not over-exploited and is not endangered.

Mobile phone

Stocks of fish go up and down. Use the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) Good Fish Guide iPhone and Android app to find out which fish are the most sustainable right now

RSPCA Assured logo

RSPCA Assured replaces the RSPCA Freedom Food certification. The RSPCA welfare standards cover farmed fish like salmon and trout as well as cattle and other farm animals.

Dolphin Safe logo

Choose those that are certified. Tuna labelling schemes aren’t as thorough though and while the Dolphin Safe – Earth Island Institute is the strictest dolphin-friendly labelling scheme it doesn’t ensure overall sustainability. Greenpeace regularly assesses the sourcing of all top brands in their Tuna League. Sainsbury’s came top of the 2011 league.

Tips for choosing sustainable fish
The big five – take care with the most common fish we buy in the UK:

  1. Cod
  2. Haddock
  3. Salmon
  4. Canned tuna
  5. Prawns.

Due to their popularity, there are sometimes problems with all these fish and you need to choose carefully. The MSC app helps greatly with this.

Try different fish. This will take the pressure off fish like cod and haddock and make the most of bycatch fish that often gets discarded. It’s good to spread the load of our fish eating onto many different types of fish, not just a few.

Check out alternatives to cod such as coley, pouting, pollock and pollack can all be used in many recipes in place of cod, such as fish pie, fish cakes or stews. Give prawns a rest and discover the delights of other sustainable seafood such as mussels, clams, oysters, cockles, crab and squid (calamari).

Go wild, not farmed. Fish farmed in big nets in the ocean pour tons of waste onto the seafood floor and spread disease to wild stocks. It is also an inefficient way to make food – requiring 6 pounds of wild caught animals to create 1 pound of salmon.

Ask your restaurant if the fish is sustainable, and what seafood they have on their menu that is sustainable. If they have none, choose another option. Just asking them will make them look into sustainable seafood. Your desire creates the economy.

Join a Campaign and Support Organisation

Here are some UK organisations working towards healthier oceans:

Marine Stewardship Council
Marine Conservation Society
Surfers Against Sewage
Great British Oceans
Blue Marine Foundation
National Lobster Hatchery


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