This story first appeared in the Sunday Herald on 9 November 2008

IT IS  never going to become a cuddly toy like the panda. And it lacks the big cat mystique of the Siberian tiger, but the predatory spurdog, once one of the eastern Atlantic’s most prolific small sharks, is equally threatened with extinction in Scottish waters.

And next weekend (Nov 15/16), Scottish sea anglers aim to put the bite on fisheries minister Richard Lochhead when they carry out a voluntary two-day tagging exercise aimed at delivering research evidence to support their plea for the creation of a marine reserve to help the species recover.

More than 60 anglers will take to the waters of Loch Sunart in Lochaber and Loch Etive in Argyllshire in a mass effort to tag what they believe are refuge populations of the shark whose numbers have dropped so low it is now on conservationists’ lists of “critically endangered” creatures like the giant panda and Siberian tiger.

In little over a decade, numbers of spurdog, which once roamed in “packs” five miles square, have shrunk dramatically to around 5% of their original biomass, due, the conservationists say, to intense overfishing by bottom trawlers and long-liners chiefly from France, Ireland, Norway and the UK.

The Scottish Sea Anglers Conservation Network, a charity and vocal pressure group, has organised the “tagathon” next Saturday and Sunday as the first step in a campaign to win a complete ban on commercial fishing for spurdog, whose meat is popular in the UK as a “rock salmon” and sought-after by diners in Germany, Belgium, France and Italy.

Organiser and SSACN project director Ian Burrett said yesterday:

“Even though the spurdog is listed as ‘critically endangered’ in the north-east Atlantic by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund, Scottish cabinet secretary Richard Lochhead and the Marine Directorate still require further evidence through field-based research before they are willing to take any action to protect them.

“The only way we can meet their evidential needs is by tagging. Our evidence so far from sea anglers is that although the spurdog is migratory these lochs hold resident breeding populations.”

The SSACN wants the Government to designate the lochs as Marine Protected Areas, a new EU-designated habitat, as quickly as possible in order to give the shark a chance to regenerate. European countries have signed up to create a network of MPAs by 2012.

The spurdog is an interesting species whose decline has been exacerbated due to its exceptionally slow growth, late maturity and litters of as few as six young.

Females do not start reproduction until their teenage years; gestation lasts nearly 24 months, one of the longest of any animal. But some commercial fishers are known to target pregnant females because of their greater weight.

Ali Hood, conservation director of The Shark Trust, a science-based UK charity, explains: “The sharks have a tendency to aggregate in large groups defined by sex and age so should a commercial vessel come across a pack of females they could have a dramatic effect on the population.”

She added: “We have to act to prevent the disappearance of this species from our waters. It needs a recovery plan and an element of management of that plan may well need to be an outright ban on targeting this species altogether.”

The spurdog, or spiny dogfish, which can live to 75 years, grow up to 160 cms (15 ft) and weigh more than 9 Kg (20 lbs), is one of only a few species of sharks whose catch is limited by the EU. North Sea and Norwegian Sea catches have been reduced annually for several years, but the conservationists say landings remain well above scientific advice.

Norway last year banned fishing and landing of the shark except by small boats under 28m. Germany is backing further restrictions but failed to win a two-thirds majority for its proposal at the 2007 conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Steve Bastiman, chairman of SSACN said: “Fish are unfortunately not visible in the same way as other endangered animals, like the panda. And although sharks do suffer from an image issue, as predators they are a key part of keeping the food chain in balance.

“We cannot stand by while the spurdog, and other threatened species like the skate, disappear from our waters in the same way as the Norwegian pout – once the second most common fish in the Clyde – has done.”

Next weekend’s results of will be collated and analysed by the UK Shark Tagging Programme. Tracking the sharks’ movements at sea is the next objective, but needs the conservationists to raise £25,000 to pay for tags and satellite time.

A Scottish Government spokesman said it recognised the “serious condition” of spurdog stocks across the north-east Atlantic.

“To this end we have supported action by the European Commission to prevent directed fisheries on spurdog by all European Member States in all waters of the North East Atlantic, not just Scottish waters. These measures came into force this year.

“This offers maximum protection for spurdog stocks across the whole of their natural range,” he said.