On a Wing and a Prayer: Hope for Thorny Skates in US Waters

by Trevor Smith

Around the world, intensive commercial fishing operations are driving many marine fish stocks to the brink of collapse. Sharing in this plight is a little-known bottom dwelling marine species, the thorny skate (Amblyraja radiata).Thorny skates are one of seven skate species endemic to the waters of the northwest Atlantic Ocean, and their populations in Canada and the United States have declined precipitously over the past 40 years. Over this time, fishing efforts for skates in US and Canadian waters have surged to satiate a burgeoning appetite for skate wings on the international seafood market. In Canada, thorny skate populations persist at perilously low levels, but the species is even more imperiled in the United States, where population numbers have declined unremittingly since the mid-1970s and are currently at historic lows. The current US federal regulatory scheme has proven woefully inadequate to promote rebuilding of thorny skate populations. Since 2003, thorny skates have been designated a “prohibited” species in US waters under the Skate Fishery Management Plan. Despite the prohibition on possessing or landing thorny skates, however, population numbers continue to decline, and according to recently published reports, bycatch mortality and illegal landings continue to jeopardize the species’ survival. Accordingly, thorny skates are assessed as “Critically Endangered” in US waters by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In Canada, where the IUCN assessed the species as “Vulnerable,” a directed skate fishery continues to capture and kill thorny skates. In August, in an effort to turn the tide on the fate of thorny skates in the northwest Atlantic, AWI petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to add them to the list of federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act. The petition, if successful, would provide thorny skates with more stringent protections and regulations afforded by the Act and, potentially, critical habitat designation as well.

What is Winging?
Skate “winging” is a routine practice among commercial and recreational fishers and is egregiously inhumane. With notable parallels to shark finning, many skates, while still alive, have their wings cut off and their amputated bodies discarded into the ocean. De-winged skates and de-finned sharks who are tossed back alive ultimately share the same demise—excruciating pain, followed by suffocation, starvation, and/or predation. This year, in response to the growing public outcry denouncing shark finning as inhumane and biologically reckless, President Obama signed into law the Shark Conservation Act. The law not only strengthened the 2001 federal ban on shark finning in US waters, but also reflects a glint of hope that public awareness and tenacious advocacy on behalf of skates can spur a future ban on winging.


Trevor Smith is a second-year law student at Florida State University. While interning at AWI, he authored AWI's Endangered Species Act listing petition for the thorny skate.