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Proposed fishery increase could harm critically endangered thorny skates

In response to new analyses estimating  that greater numbers of some skate species can be safely fished,  the National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed an “emergency” increase in the catch limit for the Northeast Skate Complex Fishery. While its good news that some skate populations may be doing well enough to support increased fishing, this doesn’t tell the whole story of the Northeast Skate Complex.

Image from nero.NOAA.gov

Because skates in this region live in the same kinds of habitat and fishing gear doesn’t discriminate between them, seven species are managed as a complex. Although recent analyses have a great deal of uncertainty, it appears that a few of these species (even the barndoor skate which was once feared to be nearly extinct) appear to be rebuilding to healthy levels. These species are fished for a large foreign skate wing meat trade.  The meat is also used as bait for the region’s lobster fishery.

One species, the thorny skate, is classified as Critically Endangered in U.S. waters under the IUCN Red List. Two recent petitions (from the Animal Welfare Institute and WildEarth Guardians) aim to get thorny skates protected under the Endangered Species Act.

It’s been illegal for skate fishermen to land thorny skates since 2004, but they’re still often caught as bycatch. Additionally, monitoring is generally quite poor and fishermen usually do not report landings by species despite efforts to gather species-specific data by the skate fisheries management plan.

Unless species-specific reporting improves and fishermen come up with a way to avoid catching thorny skates, I join the American Elasmobranch Society, Shark Advocates International, and the Project AWARE Foundation in opposing this increase in the skate fishery.