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North Pacific Fishery Management Council, NOAA Fisheries Focus Research on Bering Sea Skate Nurseries

Skate egg cases provide protection against the elements as young skates develop.

A skate at Stage 5 of its life cycle.   

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March 11, 2013 

NOAA scientists will be keeping a closer eye on six skate nursery sites in the Bering Sea, following final action by members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at the February meeting in Portland, Oregon.

The Council designated the six sites as Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPCs) for early life stages of skates and established a research priority to monitor site conditions. The overarching concern is what role skates play in the extremely productive Bering Sea ecosystem, and how susceptible skate eggs may be to both natural and human-caused disturbance.

“In establishing these as HAPCs, we in essence flag these areas as potentially vulnerable to a broad range of disturbances,” said Council member Bill Tweit. “We request that decision-makers involved in other planning processes pay attention to these areas, their unique attributes, and consider potential disturbances.”

Skates are related to sharks and sting rays, appearing most similar to rays. However, skates do not give live birth like rays. Instead, skates produce large leathery egg cases—sometimes called “mermaid purses”—that provide protection to developing embryos. These eggs are placed onto the sea floor in specific areas referred to as nurseries. In the North Pacific, skate eggs incubate in their case and may take more than three years to develop, due to cold water temperatures. Further, skates produce only a small number of offspring each year and rely on high survival rates of juveniles to maintain healthy population levels. 

To date, nursery sites have been found on flat sandy areas at the heads of a few undersea canyons, such as Pribilof, Bering, Zhemchug, and Pervenets canyons in the eastern Bering Sea. NOAA scientists at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle estimate more nurseries may exist for eastern Bering Sea skate stocks occurring there. However, an exact number is not known. Scientists hope to better understand site habitat conditions and find new ones through their research.

The Bering Sea is world-renowned for its enormously productive ecosystem and profitable fisheries. Skates are an important part of the rich diversity that makes Alaskan waters some of the most productive in the world.

The starred areas of this map represent the six sites of Habitat Areas of 
Particular Concern (HAPCs) for early life stages of skates and established 
a research priority to monitor site conditions.