Knauss Fellowship brings U.S. Endangered Species Act into focus for UNH alumnus

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If you had asked UNH alumnus Brendan Newell (’15) a year ago what he thought he might be studying in 2016, he likely would not have mentioned guitarfish — this marine creature simply wasn’t on his radar at the time. But after almost a year of working for the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Office for Protected Resources (OPR), Newell has determined that the populations of two species of guitarfish are in need of protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. He is working through the process of listing them as federally threatened as part of his one-year NOAA Knauss Fellowship near Washington, D.C.

Above: 2016 Knauss Fellow Brendan Newell (UNH '15).

Haven’t heard of guitarfish? You’re not alone — these species don’t live in New England waters. Although there are guitarfish living off the coast of California, Newell has been reviewing data for the common guitarfish (Rhinobatos rhinobatos) and the blackchin guitarfish (R. cemiculus) native to the Mediterranean Sea and western Africa. This begs the question: Why would a species found in another country be considered for listing on the U.S. Endangered Species Act?

“The Endangered Species Act doesn’t specify that we can only focus on domestic species,” Newell recently explained. When organizations petition OPR to examine the populations and habitat for various at-risk species — which is what happened with these two guitarfish species — the OPR staff must review data to determine if the species should be listed as federally threatened or endangered. Even though the U.S. doesn’t currently have much interaction with the common and blackchin guitarfish, their listing would provide some level of protection if the species expanded their range to the U.S. or were imported to our waters, he said.

“I think it’s pretty cool that I’m one of the people primarily responsible for getting these species on the list,” Newell said. “But it’s also an exercise in process about how the Endangered Species Act works and raising awareness about the plight of the species,” he said.

The data review process to determine if the common and blackchin guitarfish should be listed was not without challenges, Newell explained. Much of the information came from anecdotal evidence that required translation into English and generally focused on the presence or absence of the species rather than population estimates. Nevertheless, the data seemed to indicate a recent (and drastic) decline in populations. Furthermore, guitarfish are shark-like elasmobranchs (the group that includes sharks, skates and rays), and as such they are targets for the fin trade in other countries. This has played a role in their population decline, particularly in West Africa, because their fins are valuable fishery products, he said.

Newell’s recommendation that both species be listed as federally threatened is in the process of being finalized. The proposed ruling can be accessed here. https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=NOAA-NMFS-2016-0082-0001

Looking back on his near-year of being a Knauss Fellow, Newell says, “I’m still interested in working on the Endangered Species Act even after working on it for a year. It’s pretty amazing the depth of some of these policies. I came in to the fellowship with an interest in marine and environmental policy, and that continues. But now I have a better sense for what that entails.”

N.H. Sea Grant promotes the wise use, conservation and sustainable development of marine and coastal resources in the state, the region and beyond. Located at the University of New Hampshire, NHSG is part of a national network of programs located in our coastal and Great Lakes states as well as in Puerto Rico and Guam.  

Rebecca Zeiber, N.H. Sea Grant Science Writer