Endangered Designation Sought for Thorny Skate

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Washington, D.C. -- Today the Animal Welfare Institute petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to add the thorny skate (Amblyraja radiata) to the list of federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act.

Thorny skates are one of seven skate species that inhabit the waters of the northwest Atlantic Ocean, and their populations in Canada and the U.S. have declined dramatically over the past four decades. In Canada, thorny skate populations persist at perilously low levels. The species is even more imperiled in U.S. waters where population numbers have declined unremittingly since the mid-1970s and are currently at historic lows.

Since 2003, thorny skates have been designated a "prohibited" species in U.S. waters under the Skate Fishery Management Plan in an attempt to promote species recovery. Despite the prohibition on possession/landing of thorny skates, population numbers continue to decline. According to recently published reports, unsustainable bycatch mortality and illegal landings continue to imperil the species' survival in U.S. waters. Thorny skates are assessed as "Critically Endangered" in U.S. waters by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In Canada, where the IUCN assessed the species as "Vulnerable," a directed skate fishery continues to capture and kill thorny skates.

Skates, including thorny skates, are captured and sold as human food or cut up and used as bait in lobster traps. Many skates, while still alive, have their wings cut off after capture with the remainder of the body thrown back into the ocean. "Winging" of skates, like shark "finning," is remarkably inhumane.

"Considering the thorny skate’s precipitous decline in the Northwest Atlantic, the continued killing of this species is clearly unsustainable and biologically reckless," reports Trevor Smith, a Florida State University law student and primary author of the petition.

The current U.S. federal regulatory scheme has proven woefully inadequate to promote rebuilding of the species' populations and to reverse the thorny skate’s precarious status in U.S. waters. The petition, if successful, would provide the species with more stringent protections and regulations afforded by the Endangered Species Act and, potentially, critical habitat designation as well.

"It is not too late to turn the tide on the thorny skate’s fate in U.S. waters," says Susan Millward, Executive Director of the Animal Welfare Institute. "The best available science clearly supports federal endangered status, and the National Marine Fisheries Service should use the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act to facilitate the species' recovery."

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Media Contacts:
Susan Millward, Executive Director, AWI, (202) 446-2123, susan@awionline.org
Trevor Smith, Second-year law student, Florida State University, (850) 454-5629, tjs10c@fsu.edu