Photo credit: Scottish Shark Tagging Programme
Written by Johanna Haughey
Common skate on a porcelain plate
On porcelain plates with parsley butter amongst the clang of Belfast’s fish bars is where you might see him. He looks a bit like a ‘Ray’, but that’s his less elusive cousin. Perfect with a crisp white.
White Atlantic skies slice the horizon in half over the Celtic Sea. The largest of his kind, but it’s still hard to find him beneath the navy waves.
A tail of thorns lazes in the muddy depths feasting on shellfish, sometimes a tasty mackerel if his steel jaws move quickly. Those would be a more sustainable menu choice, to enjoy on porcelain plates.
More about the common skate…
The common skate is found off the coast of Ireland and Scotland, however its population is sadly in critical decline.
It’s the largest species of skate in the world, and its wingspan can reach up to three metres. The better-known ray is a close relative to skate, with the same flat shape well adapted for life on the sea floor. While the skate reproduces by laying eggs in cases known as ‘mermaid purses’, the ray gives birth to live young.
The common skate’s endangerment is partly a product of its life and reproductive cycle. For example, they’re slow to mature, have long pregnancies, don’t reproduce every year, and don’t produce many young.  This is not, however, the sole reason for their demise.
The common skate relies on muddy or sandy seabeds, where it survives by feeding on crustaceans and pelagic species such as mackerel. This fragile habitat has been damaged by decades of commercial fishing.
Whether fishermen intend to catch the common skate or not, their large size means they often end up as bycatch, caught in fishing nets even from birth.
The EU recognised the species’ vulnerability and passed legislation in 2009 to ban the targeted commercial fishing of skate in EU waters. Any skate caught unintentionally are required to be released, but many are still landed at harbours by fishermen who mistake them for a lookalike species, such as ray. UK landings data shows that 9.6 tonnes of common skate still ended up in UK ports between 2011 and 2014 .
To protect the Common Skate from extinction, the Marine Conservation Society (MSC) has three-part action plan which includes:
- advising the fishing industry on fishing methods that reduce bycatch;
- asking chefs and restaurants, consumers and retailers to avoid buying or eating common skate;
- and campaigning for better management of marine protected areas in UK seas to protect common skate and their habitats from damaging activities.
There are steps we all can take to protect the common skate and the wider marine environment. One of the best is to make smarter choices when it comes to the fish and seafood that we eat. Avoiding over-fished and endangered varieties and choosing sustainable fishing methods that do not damage the marine ecosystem will help protect the common skate.
 Skate; back on the menu? http://plymsea.ac.uk/id/eprint/7244/1/backonthemenu_manuscript_reviewed.pdf