Four of the most common species of skate (Rajidae) were studied off eastern Canada to determine if their reproductive characteristics were linked to their population trajectories. The fecundity of the winter skate Leucoraja ocellata, the little skate Leucoraja erinacea, the thorny skate Amblyraja radiata and the smooth skate Malacoraja senta averaged between 41 and 56 egg cases per year for each species. For all species but L. ocellata, males matured at larger sizes and at later ages than females. Theoretical rates of population increase for non-equilibrium populations of L. ocellata (c. 0·07), M. senta (c. 0·14) and L. erinacea and A. radiata (c. 0·20) were low compared to most fishes, indicating that north-west Atlantic skates are intrinsically unproductive, yet are theoretically capable of supporting low-level fisheries. Nevertheless, the results of 36 years of research surveys indicate that the abundance of mature L. ocellata, A. radiata and M. senta all decreased by >90% since 1970, indicating that past fishing mortality (both directed and undirected) has outstripped the net productivity of the skate populations on the eastern Scotian Shelf. The relationship between maximum age (tmax) and age of maturity (tmat) was a better predictor of population growth rate than was body size, with the species exhibiting the highest ratios of tmat :tmax (L. ocellata = 0·68, M. senta = 0·66) having the lowest predicted population growth rates. L. ocellata appears to have the lowest productivity and has experienced the greatest population decline, thus raising concerns over its future status.