Activists Want Local Fish Listed "Endangered"
Regulations Could Hurt Our Supply of Cod and Haddock
By John Pike
July 2--Will our supply of cod and haddock be threatened because some
people want the federal government to protect a little-known species that
local fishermen usually try to avoid and which is rarely eaten in the United
States? If the people who want the barndoor skate fish protected succeed, it
could add even more regulations to an already troubled industry.
Last March, Richard Max Strahan, on behalf of GreenWorld in Cambridge,
Mass., filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency
within the Department of Commerce, to protect the barndoor skate, a
cartilaginous fish similar to a shark. Years ago Strahan’s group successfully
petitioned the federal government to list the northern spotted owl as
endangered, a move that ultimately curbed logging on more than nine million
acres of western forests.
Three weeks after GreenWorld filed its petition on the barndoor skate,
William R. Irvin and Sonja V. Fordham with the Center for Marine
Conservation (CMC) in Washington, D.C., filed a similar petition with NMFS,
and are seeking to have the fish listed as endangered. Should the skate be
deemed endangered, regulations could be implemented that would affect
commercial fishing for cod, haddock, flounder, and other saleable fish.
Teri Frady, a spokeswoman at federal agency, told Massachusetts News that
more time for study is needed, perhaps a year, on the barndoor skate before
any opinions are completed regarding its status as an endangered species or
suggested regulations to increase its numbers. She added it is “very likely” it
will be classified with at least the lowest level classification called “candidate
species” in the year 2000; the two higher levels being “threatened” and
“endangered.” A rating of candidate species means officials will monitor the
numbers of barndoor skates.
Irvin, the conservation activist in Washington, D.C., says that a candidate
species designation “will not afford any protection to the species. The
barndoor skate needs the substantive and procedural protections afforded by
the listing under the Endangered Species Act.”
A regulation could close off areas of the ocean to commercial fishing, such as
the existing fishing suspension in part of Georges Bank, at certain times of the
year. Some say it might be possible to redesign fishing nets to help pass over
Vito Calomo, Executive Director of the Fisheries Commission, in Gloucester,
Mass. told Massachusetts News that skates seem to be a hearty fish that
swim away healthy after being caught in nets and thrown back overboard.
“They have a higher rate of survival than many other types of fish because
they do not have a swim bladder.”
“If fishermen are told to release barndoor skates after being caught in nets
because they are considered rare, they will absolutely cooperate,” says
However, Irvin told Massachusetts News that although some skates are
returned to the water and appear healthy after being caught, their “numbers
are still down dramatically. They are not all surviving and are getting killed.”
John A. Musick of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester
Point told Massachusetts News that “just because the skates flap their wings
and move their gills does not mean it will survive. The by-catch mortality is
why they are going down the tubes to begin with. That has been the problem
Similar to a Shark
For millions of years the barndoor skate, a voracious predator, has gracefully
patrolled North Atlantic waters. Curving wavelike motions propel its disk-like
body in glides and scoops along the ocean bottom. Equipped with many rows of teeth, its jaws can quickly masticate shrimp,
worms, squid, lobster, and virtually any fish.
These large skates (up to just over 40 inches in width), or rays, are essentially
flattened sharks with wings that beguile many a scuba diver. Though edible,
perhaps tasting like scallops, skates have never been deliberately targeted by
During the past few decades, fishing fleets have intensified their efforts,
depleting populations of groundfish off the New England coast. Commercial
fishermen have increasingly invested in large, efficient trawls and dredges.
Although this gear is deployed to bring in cod, haddock, pollack, or flounder, it
scoops up everything in its path as it plows the ocean floor, including the
Commercial fishermen can affect even very young barndoor skates. Each
skate egg is surrounded by its own leathery case, about five inches long and
three inches wide. While it incubates in the ocean, which can be up to two
years, it can be picked up or crushed by trawls. After it is hatched, it is still
not free from danger by fishermen. The seven-inch long young are already
large enough to be snared by bottom-trawling nets.
Numerous No More
Another problem for the barndoor skates is the way it reproduces. Since the
species lives in the absence of aggressive predators, its reproduction
mechanism evolved differently than some female fish that can lay one million
Not only do barndoor skates grow slowly but they mature relatively late and
produce few young, oftentimes only two to 20 annually. Since the females do
not start producing eggs until they are 10 to fifteen years old, it is quite
difficult for the species to reproduce and survive in a world where up to 80
percent of their turf can be trawled annually.
Sometimes barndoor skates also get unintentionally snagged in baited
Commercial fishing has devastated the barndoor skate, scientists recently
According to a 1953 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bulletin, almost a century
ago fishing boats in Georges Bank, which is about 100 miles east of Cape
Cod, sometimes caught 600 skates diurnally. In 1951 one fishing boat reported
during a cruise catching 146 skates per haul, a quantity the bulletin reported
“works out to about nine or 10 skates per acre.”
Today, barndoor skates are rarely caught. In some areas where trawlers used
to regularly catch six to 30 barndoor skates per tow of the net, none are
showing up, despite the more efficient gear.
Research in 1981 showed the common skate will become locally extinct in the
In the July 31, 1998 issue of Science, two biologists published data showing a
precipitous decline in landings of the species, which initially brought to light the
barndoor skate’s precarious status.
Unless the decline is stopped, “the barndoor skate could become the first
well-documented example of extinction in a marine fish,” says Jill M. Casey
of Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s and Ransom A. Myers
of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Casey and Myers say “the average number of barndoor skates in the 1950s
was about .6 million. That number decreased to about 0.2 million individuals
in the 1960s, and to less than 500 in the 1970s.”
Since the 1970s, the data of Casey and Myers indicate the population of
barndoor skates has increased slightly.
New data showing a similar trend for large North Eastern skates such as the
common skate (Dipturus batis), were presented this year at a Marine
Conservation Biology Institute symposium at the New England Aquarium in
Les Kaufman, a conservation biologist with the Boston University Marine
Program, says with regard to the barndoor skate, “We are probably not
dealing with a situation where if we don’t act immediately, the species will
He adds that if a species on land had suffered the same amount of decline
seen in the numbers of barndoor, an army of biologists would have launched a
campaign to protect it.
John D. Reynolds, a researcher from the University of East Anglia, in
Norwich, England, reported in Boston that increasingly common skates and
other large species have been disappearing, and small skates have been taking
their place. Populations of the small starry rays (Raja radiata) have
A pattern that is emerging throughout the North Atlantic, in terms of marine
survival, is that “big is bad, which is relevant to the barndoor,” says Reynolds.
Casey and Myers also say that since the barndoor skate, which is a large
easily identified species, has been allowed to virtually disappear in an area
that is well surveyed, the fate of little known species is likely to be worse.
Kaufman says that if species that are commercially unattractive or obscure to
humans such as skates, or related species that are also slow to reproduce
disappear, it will have an effect on other things that for commercial reasons
we do care about.
And so it seems the graceful beautiful mesmerizing and largely ignored
barndoor skate, a species of fish the fishermen do not fish for, and the hearty
salty fishermen themselves, have lots in common. Both are under tremendous
stress, both greatly and unintentionally affect each other, both love the sea,
and most importantly, both together are perhaps skating to extinction.