Skating to Extinction?

By Raloff, Janet | Science News, May 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Skating to Extinction?


Raloff, Janet, Science News


Some long-lived fish are facing accidental annihilation

Trawlers, which efficiently scour the ocean floor for groundfish, unintentionally haul in plenty of untargeted fish, including large slow-to-reproduce skates.

For millions of years, a voracious predator has gracefully patrolled North Atlantic waters. Sinuous undulations propel its disklike body in glides and swoops along the seafloor. Fitted with many rows of teeth, its jaws can make quick work of shrimp, worms, squid, even lobsters. It also dines on herring, menhaden, or any other fish unlucky enough to catch its fancy.

These large skates, sometimes called rays, are essentially flattened sharks with wings. Though edible--some describe them as tasting like scallops--skates have never been deliberately targeted by U.S. fishers. Having no serious predators, they existed undisturbed at the top of the marine food chain until the 20th century.

During the past few decades, fishing fleets have intensified their efforts, depleting groundfish stocks throughout the world's coastal waters. Commercial operations have increasingly invested in large, efficient trawls and dredges. Although this gear is deployed to bring in cod, haddock, pollack, shrimp, or flounder, it scoops up everything in its path as it plows the ocean floor (SN: 10/26/96, p. 268).

Among the unintended victims of trawling have been skates, especially the spectacularly large barndoor skate, Raja laevis, in the Atlantic off North America. This skate and others also have been unintentionally snagged by baited longlines. Commercial fishing has, in fact, devastated the barndoor skate, scientists recently reported.

Nearly a century ago, fishing boats plying Georges Bank off Massachusetts could bring in up to 600 skates per day, according to a 1953 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bulletin. As late as 1951, one ship reported a cruise during which it landed 146 skates per haul, a quantity that the bulletin reported "works out to about 9 to 10 skates per acre."

Today, barndoor skates are rarely caught. In some of the areas where trawlers used to routinely haul in 6 to 30 barndoor skates per tow of the net, not a single barndoor is showing up--despite increased rates of trawling with ever more efficient gear.

Conservationists now worry that the unintentional catch of skates on both sides of the North Atlantic has endangered the barndoor skates and several other species. Today, no regulations limit fishing's impact on these animals, but that could change soon.

In March, two organizations independently petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to designate the barndoor skate as an endangered species. By June, officials must determine whether sufficient data exist to warrant extending federal protection to this little-understood and largely ignored animal.

Even if this skate isn't judged to face imminent extinction, it may still be considered an overfished resource. One of the recent petitions asked NMFS to evaluate this possibility. A positive finding would automatically trigger at least some protection--a move that could bring an uproar from commercial fishing fleets.

The barndoor skate's precarious status only came to light when a pair of Canadian biologists published data in the July 31, 1998 SCIENCE showing a precipitous decline in landings of the species. If this decline isn't arrested, "the barndoor skate could become the first welldocumented example of extinction in a marine fish," argued Jill M. Casey of Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's and Ransom A. Myers of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

New data of a similarly worrisome trend affecting large eastern North Atlantic skates such as the common skate, Dipturus batis, were presented at a Marine Conservation Biology Institute symposium in Boston 6 weeks ago by researchers from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. …

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