Mermaids of the Shallows: The Decline of the “Northumberland Skate”

If you were around eastern New Brunswick’s beaches in the 2000s, you might have noticed many of these strange, black, four-pointed “cases”, known colloquially as mermaid’s purses. These purses are in fact the discarded egg cases of the various Skates in the surrounding seas. But due to the sharp decline of skates of various species in the southern Gulf of Saint Lawrence, we don’t see them as often anymore. Samuel walks us through his childhood experiences and the journey of a nearly extirpated bottom-feeding fish in this edition of the NB Fieldnotes.

By Samuel LeGresley, Communications Coordinator

Growing up, I was inspired by the animals around me. I made little sceneries with the husks and shells of sea creatures on the beach when I was ten years old, helped by my father.

Going to the beach, everything was interesting to me then; the waves, the hermit crabs, the little sand bugs, the shells, and especially the hollow black lifeforms that could fit in the palm of my hand, which most people called “mermaid’s purses”.

We eventually had the idea to fit small rocks in them for a “head”. I called these little beings with their hands up in the air “the sea people”, and made it an art project. We would bring some to our backyard, to the woods, and have them live in little nooks and crannies like sea spirits out of their element.

Since that period, I’ve stopped seeing them. And I’m sure a lot of you have noticed, too.

The “Misunderstood Mermaid”: A Controversial Charisma

Related to rays such as the Manta Ray, and more distantly to sharks and other cartilaginous fish, skates’ habits and lifestyle are not very well-known or appreciated. In fact, in a CBC article from 2019, they were even called “ugly.”

I, however, find that this “ugliness” is subjective. Sure, when they’re out of water, they’re not so pretty–but I think when in their habitat, they vaguely feel like underwater birds, fluttering about near the ocean floor. They really have a unique look to them. And to be fair to that CBC journalist, they were most likely alluding to the fact that they get less love and attention from people than some other, more well-known and charismatic fish.

An albino winter/little skate (right), with a regular one for comparison. Photo : DFO

But no matter how attractive of a fish you think they are (or are not), that still doesn’t account for what’s causing the decline, and how it can be prevented.

The same 2019 article states that Grey Seals are making short work of the remaining population. Once numbering around 8,000 in the 1960s, these seals now have a population of 40,000 in those same Canadian waters. In contrast to this rise, the decline of mermaid’s purses on beaches tells a different, but related, story of imbalance in our aquatic ecosystem.

“Demersal in Distress”: A Population Unique to the Strait?

Winter Skates, the most studied type of skate in New Brunswick, are demersal fish, meaning they are bottom feeders. As a result, commercial trawling and bycatch have impacted them greatly, too. It even turns out that the earlier-maturing, younger-living skate from the Northumberland Strait might potentially be an undescribed sub-species of Winter Skate, or even a new species we never documented. 

So I reached out to Andrew Darcy, who works as a Fisheries Technician for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). He has a lot of practical experience with this noncommercial species, and even helps conduct bottom-trawl surveys to sample fish, a long-held practice in that department. These surveys have turned up some interesting specimens in recent years.

“Bottom trawl surveys in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence are a September survey, we’ve done it every year for over 50 years. It’s one of the longest-running bottom-trawl surveys in North America – it’s a huge, huge dataset. And that’s kind of where you’re looking at those general population trends.”

Andrew Darcy

Though it is very comprehensive, it still has some limitations, as Darcy says. Considering humans are land-dwellers, it can be hard to get a broad overview of what we can’t see under the ocean.

“The issue with our survey is that we only do it once a year–in September–and we do it during a time when Winter Skates and Thorny Skates are moving to deeper waters. [Some] say we might be missing out on capturing the full abundance and biomass of the population because they’re just not there when we fish for them.”

Andrew Darcy

The bottom-trawl survey was once focused on commercial species such as Atlantic cod within the Gulf. But now it has evolved to facilitate more of a comprehensive overview of what is out there.

Historically, our September survey has mainly been used to set quotas and regulations for commercial species. It’s always been the focus. Though ever since the moratorium on Cod, there is commercial fishing that goes on in the southern gulf, but it’s not nearly what it was. There was a shift back in the late 1990s, early 2000s to this ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management. That’s when they started to look more holistically at all these species, with more of a focus on biodiversity and changes in the ecosystem.

Andrew Darcy

He adds that the maritime Winter Skate populations were separated into three distinct Designatable Units in 2015, with the Gulf of St. Lawrence population and Eastern Scotian Shelf – Newfoundland population being classified by COSEWIC as Endangered while the Western Scotian Shelf – Georges Bank population is classified as Not at Risk. However Winter skate are all considered globally Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.  The recent increase in Grey seal populations in the Gulf and the fact that Winter skate are often bycatch from commercial groundfish operations are now suspected to be responsible for the decline in this species. But I do believe different management practices could have been implemented in the past to mitigate the decline of this species.

Potential Developments for our Region

To protect marine species, DFO is planning to create new marine reserves in the Atlantic region of Canada, using biodiversity data to protect the most important zones for the future.

You can give your feedback here, using this link.

We can’t realistically prevent every extinction, and this reality grips me to the core. But sometimes we must live with our powerlessness in the fate of a species that is of concern from a conservation standpoint. We notice the lack of Winter Skate egg pouches on our beaches. We watched the Cod’s long decline, and the American Chestnut before that, and the Passenger Pigeon, too. But it’s my hope that these stories will continue to stoke the imagination, and inspire action for conservation in our ecosystems for years to come, even though some species may be beyond saving.

I think of my younger days, but also of the future, where our children will not see the same diversity and number of creatures as we did. 

My colleague Jenna was even trying to see some mermaid’s purses at the beach last summer, before we met. She wanted to show them to her baby son, but she couldn’t find any. I was lucky to find only one this year, at a friend’s cottage.

Meanwhile, I still have some of those mermaid’s purses from my childhood that I kept in a box. I think they’re worth something more nowadays, at least in sentimental value.

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