On Thursday, six skate nurseries in Alaska’s Bering Sea were designated as “Habitat Areas of Particular Concern.” Skates are a member of the ray family, and live on the seafloor. The designation requires consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service before activities such as offshore oil and gas development can take place.
The protected nurseries are six of only 13 or 14 total sites in the Bering Sea where skates lay their leathery egg cases, commonly known as mermaid’s purses, in deep submarine canyons. Skate eggs take three years hatch, making them extremely vulnerable to seafloor destruction.
With over 200 species of skate around the globe, they are part of the ancient family that includes sharks and rays. While the family has survived many mass extinctions, including those that killed the dinosaurs, they have not evolved to survive the dramatic impacts of humans on their habitat. Many species, including the common skate, have been dangerously overfished, and the nurseries in the Bering Sea are critical to the continued survival of skates in the North Pacific.
Oceana has been pushing for the designation since 2007, when regulators passed over the opportunity to put the protection in place.
While this week’s development highlights the importance of these nursery sites and is a good first step toward protecting Alaskan skate populations, more needs to be done. The designation leaves these critical sites vulnerable to destructive fishing practices. Bottom trawlers, fishing boats that drag 100 foot wide nets for miles, scooping up everything in their wake and destroying seafloor habitat, pose a significant threat to these delicate nurseries.
Today, Alaskan skate populations remain at healthy levels, but their reliance on a healthy seafloor, long development periods, and low fertility heighten the need for cautious management.