Searching for Deep-sea Sharks in Scotland: Part One

Part One: Introduction

Studying some of the worlds deepest living sharks is a challenge. When diving down to 1800m is not an option, as research scientists, we must bring the sharks up to us. My latest trip to Scotland was to do just that and lucky for me, it would be an epic shark filled trip.

Research was conducted on board R.V Scotia.
Research was conducted on board R.V Scotia.

The research expedition took place in a region called the Rockall Trough, located about 100km off the west of Scotland. Our fishing efforts were concentrated on the continental slope of this region, a sloping area of the sea floor that connects the shallow shelf seas 250m to the deep plains of the Rockall Basin 2000+m (See map).

The Rockall Trough is a deep trough that runs along the west coast of Scotland and Ireland.
The Rockall Trough is a deep trough that runs along the west coast of Scotland and Ireland.
This abnormally massive haul weighed in at about 25 tonnes....all of which needed to be sorted through and recorded.
This abnormally massive haul weighed in at about 25 tonnes….all of which needed to be sorted through and recorded.

Whilst the primary objectives of the research cruise were to record the faunal diversity and abundances in the these waters, I was on board to collect shark samples as part of my Ph.D research at Ocean and Earth Sciences at the University of Southampton.

As well as amazing diversity below the waves, our boat was accompanied by various bird species looking for a free meal
As well as amazing diversity below the waves, our boat was accompanied by various bird species looking for a free meal

Big nets were towed behind the boat, for about an hour, at depths from 500m – 2000m. By carrying out fishing tows at different depths, we are able to observe how fish populations varied across different depths. Our catch would then be brought on board and passed onto the scientists to be sorted and recorded. Once all fish had been weighed, measured and returned to the ocean, I would then begin to collect the samples that I needed for my research.

A typical catch from the deep-sea. Lots of Roundness grenadier along with other bizarre species. Can you spot the shark?
A typical catch from the deep-sea. Lots of roundnose grenadier along with other bizarre species. Can you spot the shark?

In addition to information on the length, weight and sex of the shark, I collected a small piece of tissue from them. This would then be placed in the freezer and upon our return, transported back to Southampton where I could run chemical analysis on them. The chemical tests I run on this tissue will allow me to understand aspects on both the diets and movements of these sharks.

Various species of deep-sea catshark, Apristurus, caught at 1500m. Subtle differences between species can make it very difficult to distinguish them from one another.
Various species of deep-sea catshark, Apristurus spp., caught at 1500m. Subtle differences between species can make it very difficult to distinguish them from one another.

At 500m we would catch mainly velvet belly lantern sharks and blackmouth catsharks but as we started moving deeper down, the diversity and size of the sharks just seemed to grow and grow. Longnose velvet dogfish would begin to take over and different species of catshark would begin appearing. Larger shark species such as leafscale gulper sharks and fat portuguese dogfish were common in catches but only in very low numbers, 1 or 2 at a time.

Portuguese dogfish, Centroscymnus coelolepis, are one of the largest species of deep-sea shark in this region. We often found fish, squid and even whale meat in the stomachs of these guys
Portuguese dogfish, Centroscymnus coelolepis, are one of the largest species of deep-sea shark in this region. We often found fish, squid and even whale meat in the stomachs of these guys

Chimaeras, sharks’ cartilaginous cousins, were also abundant and we found a variety of different species depending on the fishing depth. These ranged from the tiny large-eyed rabbitfish to the huge pale ghost shark, more on these at a later date.

The large-eyed rabbitfish, Hydrolagus mirabilis, was one of the smallest species of chimaera in the region.....and who said deep-sea creatures can't be cute.
The large-eyed rabbitfish, Hydrolagus mirabilis, was one of the smallest species of chimaera in the region…..and who said deep-sea creatures can’t be cute.

Whilst I was astonished by the huge diversity of sharks that occurred in this relatively small area, the diversity of fish was equally amazing. Most catches were dominated by a couple of fish species, mainly Roundnose grenadiers or Agazzi smootheads, but there was a remarkable range of other utterly bizarre looking fish. Each haul yielded something different, something that made it memorable.

The roundness grenadier, Coryphaenoides rupestris, is one of the most common species of fish found in the deep-sea. These wonderful looking fish is targeted by French deep-water fisheries and their populations have been historically hammered.
The roundness grenadier, Coryphaenoides rupestris, is one of the most common species of fish found in these waters. These wonderful looking fish are targeted by French deep-water fisheries and their populations have been historically hammered.

I will be producing more articles over the next coming weeks, looking at the different fish and shark species in more detail. Additionally we caught two extremely rare species of shark that this survey had not seen before and infact very few people have ever seen in these waters. More on this in the next few articles, so follow me on Twitter (@SharkDevocean) or on Instagram (@sharkdevocean) to keep up-to-date.

Christopher Bird

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7 thoughts on “Searching for Deep-sea Sharks in Scotland: Part One

  1. Dear Chris,

    I just read your article about Scottish deap sea shark! I am not sure if you know our project http://www.shark-references.com?

    I am wondering if you could send us some images of your collected sharks, rays and chimaeras after ID?

    We started a new project at our website: SEM images of shark and ray tooth (see: http://shark-references.com/post/523). For this project we are looking for jaws of deep-water sharks. Do you have such specimens and would it be possible to get some for making such images?

    All the best from Bavaria 🙂

    Jürgen

    1. Hi Jurgen
      Thanks for getting in touch. I am aware of your project and would be happy to help. I still have a few posts to put out but once they are out, I will share the photos with you.
      As for deep-sea sea shark jaws, I do not have any to provide sorry. Charlie Underwood would be the person to contact regarding that.

      Cheers
      Chris

  2. Dear Chris, or Shark Devocean members

    Thanks for sending information of deeps sharks in Scotland.

    According to your photograph of Apristurus, there seem to be three species included. Top specimen is a species of the brunneus group and the others are of the spongiceps group. It seems to me that the top one to be A. melanoasper, the second and the third ones A. aphyodes, and the lowest one A. manis (or, A. microps or A. profundorum).

    Kazuhiro Nakaya

    1. Thank you for your comment. Correct on the top two but the lowest one is A.microps. A.manis is a much bigger species with a large distinctive head and darker coloration. I will be uploaded a catshark blog post in the next coming weeks.

  3. Absolutely fascinating stuff here, I’m currently working towards a diploma in Marine Studies to hopefully one day be doing what your doing studying sharks, skates and rays in Scotland, always had a fascination with elasmobranch’s particularly the species found within Scottish seas, living in Oban and as an avid shore angler I encounter the usual species like Scyliorhinus canicula and S. stellaris (my brother caught one of only two caught by recreational anglers in the local area), Squalus acanthias to which the last I heard (this may have changed the fish was tagged in 2012/13) a specimen tagged by myself is the only S. acanthias to have been recorded migrating from the Firth of Lorn into a possible breeding site in Loch Etive, although this movement had long been suspected. Another common species here in Raja clavata and over the past few years I’ve been trying to record their movements in the Sound of Kerrera using records from my recreational angling catches to see if movements can be predicted and why they do so, would love to be able to do this for a living!! Keep up the good work Chris and I can’t wait to read more about your adventures on the RV Scotia and to learn more about Scottish sharks.

    Kind Regards

    Jonathan Taylor

    1. Hi Jonathan. Thanks for the comment, I’ve only just seen it. Good luck with your diploma, you certainly seem to have a good grasp of the Scottish sharks. We caught a few C.canicula on this cruise but only in the shallow depths. Just working through all these samples now and hopefully get the papers out later in the year. C

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