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Hope for endangered fish species

A NEW study is raising hopes for the conservation of some fish species threatened with extinction.

Marine scientists working in the Celtic Sea have discovered a natural refuge for the critically endangered flapper skate.

Sharks, rays and skates are highly vulnerable, but the study shows that small areas of the seabed that experience below-average fishing intensity can sustain greater populations of these species.

One especially interesting area in the northeastern Celtic Sea, where uneven seabed makes trawling difficult, supports at least ten species of the above-mentioned grouping, including the rare blue skate and the related flapper skate.

Both skate species are now listed as critically endangered, but populations of the flapper skate, which can grow up to 2.5 metres, are considered to be under greatest threat. EU regulations oblige fishermen to return any flapper skate they catch to the sea. However, its slow growth and reproduction mean that even the killing of very small numbers of this fish cannot be justified at this stage.

Scientists from the Marine Institute, Queen’s University, Belfast, and Bangor University carried out the study. Lead researcher Dr Samuel Shephard says the discovery of a Celtic Sea stronghold for flapper skate provides ‘a remarkable opportunity to help save a species on the verge of extinction". Prof Michel Kaiser, chair in marine conservation department, Bangor University, notes that the findings defeat an argument sometimes made that areas of little interest to the fishing industry are not worthy of conservation.

According to the Prof David Reid, the industry has reacted positively to the win-win situation that an area of little commercial interest has potential as an important marine reserve. The information has been presented to industry leaders, which has led to the inclusion of the area in proposed management plans for sharks, rays and skates in the Irish and Celtic Seas.

Eibhlín O’Sullivan, chief executive of the Irish South and West Fishermen’s Organisation and chair of the North Western Waters Regional Advisory Council Focus Group on Skates on Rays, reports that the fishing industry has been working with the Marine Institute for the past 18 months on developing a management plans.

The research adds valuable information for the identification of potential seasonally closed areas and is seen as a model for cooperation on conservation between the fishing industry and scientists.