As we head into summer, undoubtedly there will be a lot of media attention to threats to and from big, "sexy" sharks. There is, however, also plenty of news about the similarly vulnerable rays, including guitarfish, sawfish, and skates.
For starters, guitarfish - warm water rays often taken for their high value fins - recently gained protection in European Union (EU) Atlantic waters. Only a few countries, including Australia, Croatia, and Brazil, have adopted conservation measures for guitarfish, and the European species are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Endangered, so the new rules are a very welcome development. Shark Advocates International (SAI) and its Shark Alliance colleagues are now pushing the EU to extend these new protections to include the main European guitarfish habitat: the Mediterranean Sea.
Meanwhile, in the US, federal officials are considering listing several species of sawfish - shark-like rays characterized by long, tooth studded snouts - under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). All the world's sawfish species are categorized by IUCN as Critically Endangered and international, commercial trade in all but one species is banned. The remaining US species, the smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), was listed under the ESA in 2003 and recovery planning is underway. SAI serves on the recovery team and is advocating for better monitoring of shrimp fisheries off western Florida that have taken sawfish recently.
Some would say that the thorny skate lacks charisma, but this species (Amblyraja radiata) is the subject of the world's only international fishing quota for species in the shark and ray Class (under the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization - NAFO) and a prohibition on take in the US Atlantic. Thorny skates have, however, yet to recover since these measures were instituted in 2004, and are still classified by IUCN as Threatened (Critically Endangered off New England). The NAFO quota is about twice the level advised by scientists and New England-caught skates labeled as "thorny" continue to surface at seafood shows. Over the coming months, SAI will be working with the US government to secure a science-based reduction in the NAFO skate quota as well as improved species identification and enforcement of sound fishing rules throughout their range.
If your interest in conserving "flat sharks" is piqued, stay tuned for an upcoming feature on the plight of the Chesapeake Bay cownose ray.