Image from nero.NOAA.gov
Last August, two petitions were sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service from three conservation organizations (the Animal Welfare Institute, WildEarth Guardians and Friends of Animals). The petitions (available in their entirety here) requested that four species of skate be listed as “threatened” or “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act, and requested that critical habitat for these species be designated and appropriately protected. These species are the thorny skate, barndoor skate, winter skate, and smooth skate.
Due to both a directed fishery (skate wings are used for lobster trap bait, and also for food for a primarily-overseas market that includes Europe) and bycatch in bottom fisheries , Northwest Atlantic populations of these species have experienced serious declines in recent years. While some skate species have rebounded (for reasons that are not entirely clear), The thorny skate remains particularly threatened- the IUCN Red List considers the subpopulation off the Northeastern U.S. coast to be Critically Endangered. It is illegal for U.S. fishermen to keep thorny skates they catch (and has been since 2004), but they are commonly taken as bycatch in fisheries for the other skates and groundfish.
Yesterday, the National Marine Fisheries Service formally responded to the petition (thorny skate and other skates), and the news isn’t good for skates:
“After reviewing the information contained in the petition and information readily available in our files, we conclude that the petition fails to present substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action concerning barndoor, smooth and/or winter skate may be warranted…We find that the petitions do not present substantial scientific information indicating the petitioned actions may be warranted. Accordingly, we will not initiate a review of the status of thorny skate at this time.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service listed several reasons why they believe these skates should not be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Last week, I previewed the annual NAFO meeting. Two elasmobranch conservation measures (reducing the Total Allowable Catch for thorny skates to the level that the scientific council recommended and requiring fishermen to report the species of the sharks they catch) were to be discussed. That meeting is now concluded, and the results, while not surprising, are disappointing. The Total Allowable Catch for thorny skates was reduced to 8500 metric tons, but is still higher than the 5000 metric tons recommended by the scientific council. Fishermen will now be required to report the “broad category” of sharks they catch, but not species.
“Although we are pleased that the NAFO skate quota will no longer be twice as high as scientists advise, it is still deeply disappointing to witness another year of the European Union and Canada putting the interests of their fishermen above their conservation commitments and the long-term health of exceptionally vulnerable populations,” said Sonja Fordham, President of Shark Advocates International.
Grading the players
The U.S. proposed and supported both policy changes. A
The European Union was only willing to support a 5,000 metric ton TAC if the fishery changed to free-for-all derby style fishing (which could result in EU fishermen getting the entire quota and not just a share of it). C-
Canada suggested slowly phasing in the new quota over the course of 2 years. C-
Bonus player grade: Japan was the only party that objected to fishermen having to report the species of shark that they caught. F.
Later today, the annual meeting of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) begins in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The marine conservation world should pay close attention. NAFO made history in 2004 by becoming the first regional fisheries management organization to set a shared quota for a shark, skate, or ray fishery, but the future of that legacy is in question.
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.