There aren’t many states where you can be executed by electrocution any more, but if you’re on Death Row in the Deep South–say in Alabama, Florida or South Carolina–you can still choose execution by electrocution if you’re so inclined. If you’re a fisherman, particularly a shrimper, in any of those states (as well as any of their coastal neighbors), death by electrocution may not be a choice you can avoid if the lesser electric ray (Narcine bancroftii) is listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In 2010, WildEarth Guardians petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to list the lesser electric ray (also commonly called the Caribbean electric ray) under the ESA, but that petition was denied in a 90-day finding in March 2011. WildEarth Guardians challenged the decision in court, and in October 2013, NMFS and WildEarth Guardians entered a settlement agreement, whereby NMFS agreed to accept a supplement to the 2010 petition and make a new 90-day finding based on the 2010 petition, its supplement, and any additional information readily available in their files. WildEarth Guardians, in conjunction with Defenders of Wildlife, submitted a supplemental petition, and a positive 90-day finding was published in the Federal Register on 30 January. As per that notice, the species is now in status review with a decision expected within one year.
If the lesser electric ray is listed under the ESA, it could mean the end of shrimp fishing as we know it throughout the ray’s range, which includes all the Gulf states, as well as states along the east coast from Florida to North Carolina. As the original petition states, “Incidental capture by inshore shrimp trawls and other fisheries pose a serious threat to the Caribbean Electric Ray in both United States waters and waters abroad…. Electric Rays are generally discarded at sea, and survivorship rates are believed to be quite low.” The petition goes on to state that in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, the lesser electric ray population has declined by 98 percent since 1972. “The decline…is likely primarily caused by shrimp trawling,” according to WildEarth Guardians and the scientific data they cite. “Shrimp trawl fishing is intense in this area, especially in shallow waters that coincide with the range of N. bancroftii.” While bycatch reduction devices are commonly used in the fisheries throughout the ray’s range, these devices have been shown to be largely ineffective for this species due to its size and slow speed.
The public comment period on the 90-day finding ends Monday (31 March), and I’m floored by how little engagement there has been from stakeholders who stand to lose a lot if the species is listed. An endangered listing would likely mean shrimpers would take a big hit in terms of new regulations, closures and the like. To be a clear, a positive 90-day finding is a pretty low standard, and the fact NMFS is going ahead with a status review shouldn’t be seen as the Service leaning toward a listing. Perhaps the fishing industry is confident that the species won’t be listed or that if it is listed, special rules will be put in place to allow for prohibited “incidental take” as a result of commercial fishing. Perhaps.
Nonetheless, I can’t help thinking that the fishing industry not engaging in the issue now is sort of like a Death Row inmate just hoping the Governor is going to issue a stay out of the blue. I do not know enough about the species in question to claim that continued fishing in its range will definitely push it to the brink of extinction. I do know the lesser electric ray is listed as “critically endangered” on the IUCN Red List, which employs a scientifically rigorous approach to determine risks of extinction. I also know NMFS felt there was enough substantial information included in the petition to warrant a more in depth look. I would assume the fishing industry would want to do the same and engage early and often in the process of working toward a final decision.
But maybe that’s just me. Either way, it will be interesting for all stakeholders to see how this one turns out.