Meet the stingray's endangered relative: the winter skate.

Photo: Philip Sargent, fishbase.ca

Photo: Philip Sargent, fishbase.ca

This week, we're shining the spotlight on Canada's most threatened flora and fauna; the ones that are at risk of no longer blooming, crawling, or running within our borders. Climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction are just some of the anthropogenic factors contributing to declining numbers of these plants and animals. Here, we reflect on the importance of species diversity, and what people like you and I can do to help maintain ecological integrity within Canada.

Common Name: Winter Skate
Scientific Name: Leucoraja ocellata
Where in Canada: North Atlantic (East coast)
IUCN Status: Endangered

You might have heard of stingrays or manta rays, those flat-bodied, slightly intimidating creatures of the sea that seem to get all the attention. Well the rays have a relative: the winter skate, and it doesn’t get into the news very often. Yet it should, because it is slowly going extinct.

These dark brown, disc-shaped and endangered creatures live along the eastern seaboard of North America at depths of 315 meters. They are in the middle of the food chain and they eat small prey like fish and molluscs. They are sometimes preyed upon by sharks, grey seals, and even other rays.

It’s hard to know how many skates there are. While distinguishing between the different species is challenging until they reach maturity, their scattered populations create another barrier for gathering accurate numbers. Scientists believe populations have decreased between 90 to 98 per cent since the 1970s.

Winter skates are slow to repopulate. They mature slowly and have low fertility rates, making it hard for population numbers to increase quickly. These features make skates especially vulnerable to large amounts of fishing and other cumulative disturbances such as pollution, noise, habitat alteration, and the introduction of non-native species to the area.

The largest threat to the winter skate is commercial fishing, when trawling or longlines are used to catch scallops or shrimp. Most often, skates get caught in these nets as unwanted catch and are discarded. It is believed these methods led to the large population depletion of winter skates that began in the 1970s.

Like shark fins, winter skates are sometimes harvested for their wings, which are mostly sold in European and Asian markets.

Photo: Philip Sargent, fishbase.ca

Photo: Philip Sargent, fishbase.ca

While there are restrictions on how much winter skate can be brought onshore, the federal Species at Risk public registry lists no formal federal protection in place. The provincial governments of Newfoundland and Labrador or Nova Scotia similarly do not list winter skate as an endangered species or have any specific methods of protection.

If you’re concerned about winter skates and other bycatch in fisheries, the best thing to do as an individual is to understand where your seafood comes from and only buy and eat fish caught sustainably, specifically without trawling or longlines. Ocean Wise is a great resource to use if you’re unsure what seafood to avoid.

You can also contact your local MP and voice your concerns about protection for endangered and at-risk marine animals or contact the federal Minister of Fisheries, Hunter Tootoo, directly at hunter.tootoo@parl.gc.ca.

You can learn more about species in Canada on the IUCN Red List by searching here.