By IKANAWTIKET Joshua McNeely and MAPC MAARS Director Roger Hunka
It is with regret that we have to inform you that on December 5th, Governor-in-Council (Federal Cabinet) decided not to add three Atlantic populations of Winter Skate to the SARA Schedule 1. This in effect means that a decision has been made not to grant protection or recovery measures to the endangered and threatened Winter Skate population in Atlantic Canada – Life Denied Winter Skate.
The Winter Skate belongs to the shark family and, like the sharks, skates are slow growing and produce only a few young every couple of years. These characteristics make the three Winter Skate populations susceptible to overfishing, by-catch, and, in particular, habitat destruction of their nurseries, where the female lays egg pouches (called purses). Purses remain attached to the bottom for up to 22 months, while the eggs incubate. During this time, they are easily destroyed by trawling and dredging gear, which can bulldoze there way through an area every couple of years, especially when dredging for scallops and clams. Skate are endemic to the NW Atlantic, with most Skate populations occurring in Canadian waters.
EASTERN SCOTIAN SHELF POPULATION OF WINTER SKATE
In 2006, COSEWIC assessed the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence population as Endangered, the Eastern Scotian Shelf population as Threatened, and the Georges Bank and Western Scotian Shelf population as Special Concern. A SARA Listing would have provided protection and recovery measures to the Southern Gulf and Eastern Scotian Shelf populations and their critical habitat and also would have required management measures for the Georges Bank-Western Scotian Shelf population.
In their decision not to list any of the three populations, Governor-in-Council, relied on advice from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which stated that the economic costs to listing Winter Skates would outweigh the benefits. They also stated a lack of support from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI, Quebec, and industry stakeholders. “Interesting to note, industry stakeholders are not interested in Winter Skate but rather scallops and clams. In Nova Scotia, there is only one company which holds the only license for Winter Skate. On a perverse note, it does not fish Winter Skate. Instead, there is an aggressive clam and scallop fishery which brings, pillage, plunder and unattended destruction to the Eastern Scotian Shelf Population of Winter Skate critical nurseries. The SEIS and the RIAS are at odds, and we contend fundamentally flawed. This flaw, has compromised good governance and transparent accountable decision making at the cost of Winter Skate Biodiversity. A decision was made based on wealth creation. The decision amounts to “Life Denied the Winter Skate”.
We believe that the RIAS is a compromised document. Release of by-catch can be permitted under SARA. Skates are quite resilient, with up to 95% surviving after release. DFO has the power to issue permits for ‘Incidental Take’ for the other 5% of the Winter Skate as by-catch which are accidentally killed. DFO does not have to issue an area wide groundfish closure as a result of listing Winter Skate as is postulated in the flawed Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement. A closure would only be necessary in nursery areas where repeated habitat, nursery grounds and egg destruction occur without conscience nor respect for the life of the Winter Skate.
Another excuse not to list Winter Skate or deny its life, is the view that Winter Skate by-catch can be addressed through the Fisheries Act with targeted conservation measures in the groundfish Integrated Fisheries Management Plan with licensing conditions. Will that ever happen? In whose lifetime? Why is the Winter Skate denied life?
DFO had the opportunity and authority for many years to enact conservation measures, yet it has not done nothing. The Southern Gulf and Eastern Scotian Shelf populations of Winter Skate continue to decline as they have over the past 40 years.
Because recovery of the Winter Skate would be difficult and take time does not mean that we should not list it under SARA. SARA was enacted specifically to address the most serious cases of biodiversity loss and vital habitat loss – A Winter Skate nursery is a vital habitat. To save a species from extinction in the absence of actions, or when those we entrust as responsible for management are too slow or unwilling to respond to save a species, is a primary purpose of SARA and a guiding principle for the Convention on Biological Diversity.