Over a hundred eggs belonging to the critically endangered flapper skate – previously known as the common skate – have been discovered on the rocky seabed off the north west coast of Scotland. This is one of the largest egg-laying sites discovered to date and could turn out to be the biggest, but it is vulnerable to trawling and dredging.
Capable of reaching over 2.5 metres (8.2ft) in length, the flapper skate is one of the largest skate species in the world. Once common in British waters, including areas like the North Sea’s Dogger Bank, it is now extinct in most of its former range. The west coast of Scotland is one of the last places it can be found, and the skate is one of 81 Priority Marine Features the Scottish Government is committed to protecting. However, despite being made aware of the site in 2019, no action has been taken by Marine Scotland to protect the charismatic species.
The discovery comes almost a year after divers recorded egg cases at the same site in November 2019 and reported the findings to Marine Scotland. Since 2009, it has been illegal for fishermen to target flapper skates commercially, but the giant, slow-growing species is still at risk of capture and has been devastated by hundreds of years of bottom-trawling.
Flapper skate egg cases can be over 25cm long and take almost 18 months to hatch, making them vulnerable to incidental capture or damage by fishing gears. The detail of their life cycle is unclear because they are now so rare.
Volunteer divers, with the help of local fishermen, found the eggs known as mermaid’s purses nestled between small rocks. Over one hundred eggs of different sizes and ages were found, indicating that the site is home to a resident population of skate.
Chris Rickard, underwater photographer, conservationist and citizen scientist said: “Having observed well over 100 purses at this site, I believe the area is being used by multiple females over many years. Unfortunately, both the purses themselves and the newly hatched young are so large that they can be caught in bottom towed gear and destroyed – a single pass with a dredge could obliterate the site.”
Divers, local fishermen and experts are now calling on the Scottish Government to take immediate action by designating a marine protected area and bring in an emergency conservation order to close it to bottom towed fishing gears.
Ailsa McLellan, Coalition Coordinator at Our Seas, said: “The Scottish Government is failing to step up to its duties and deliver the protection that is needed. Less than 5 per cent of our inshore waters are permanently protected from bottom towed fishing gear and even these Marine ‘Protected’ Areas are still fished illegally. We are living through a biodiversity crisis and we need to act quickly to protect what is left.”
The Scottish Government is duty bound to protect and recover the seas. It designated the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura Marine Protected Area to look after this species in 2014 but still has an obligation to protect an additional site. There are also obligations under the Scottish Government’s own national marine plan to ensure that priority species, such as this, are not harmed, and that nursery grounds are looked after.
Bally Philip from the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation said: “As a local fisherman and representative of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, this has been a great opportunity to showcase what can be achieved when fishing communities and conservationists work together. We have already written to our MSP and Environment Minister to inform them that the creel fishermen fully support restrictions on some fishing in this area to ensure this critically endangered species is afforded the protection it requires.”
These calls for action join the voices of communities around Scotland’s coast calling on the Scottish Government to protect its seas. Marine protected areas currently cover around 30 per cent of Scotland’s territorial waters, yet less than 5% of Scotland’s inshore waters are protected from trawling and dredging, two of the most damaging methods of fishing.
Charles Clover, Executive Director of Blue Marine Foundation, said: “The Flapper Skate is one of the UK’s most endangered species – more at risk than the giant panda or the mountain gorilla. So we are sure that everyone who loves fish and wants to save rare creatures from potential extinction would welcome the protection of a significant egg-laying site of this magnificent and mysterious species.
Above all, it is time for the Scottish Government, which was presented with the evidence a year ago and more after the dive last week, to live up to its pledge to protect priority marine features and designate this as a protected area in a timely manner. If one of the most significant egg-laying sites yet found of one of our most endangered species isn’t a priority, what is?
In the meantime we would ask all fishermen to exercise extreme caution in the Inner Sound and not to fish anywhere they have not fished before. We are sure that everyone will want to come together with urgency to protect a site as important as this.”
Notes to Editors
The flapper skate (Dipturus intermedius) is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, which makes it at greater risk of extinction than the mountain gorilla or the giant panda.
In 2009, it was found that the fish previously known as “common skate” is actually two distinct species:
- flapper skate (Dipturus intermedius)
- blue skate (Dipturus flossada)
Flapper skates occur in the northern North Sea and off Scotland’s north-west coast. The smaller blue skate is the main species found in the Celtic Sea and around Rockall. The two species overlap across a wide area of the Celtic Seas ecoregion.
The flapper skate belongs to the elasmobranch or shark family. Instead of bones, it has a skeleton formed of cartilage.
The gestation period of an egg hatched recently at the SAMS laboratory in Oban was 535 days.
The world’s first captive flapper skate egg hatched earlier this month at Oban University: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-54368312
The emergency conservation order was used previously to protect the world’s largest flame shell reef discovered by divers in Loch Carron in 2017.
About the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation
The Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation is the national trade association for the creel fishing industry, a traditional and sustainable form of coastal fishing for shell fish that supports more jobs around the coastline of Scotland than any other type of fishery.
About Our Seas
Our Seas is a group of 68 marine businesses, community groups, Scottish fishing associations, environmental and charitable organisations and marine recreational groups. We are united in raising awareness of the urgent need to recover the degraded health of our coastal seabed and marine ecosystems.
Collectively, Our Seas is calling for:
- The return of a modern seaward limit on bottom-towed fishing to recover seabed habitats, via a just transition.
- Effective vessel tracking systems for all boats
- Preferential allocation of fishing opportunity to vessels with low environmental impact, bringing increased sustainable economic value and employment to communities.
About Blue Marine Foundation
Known as BLUE, this UK registered charity was set up in 2010 by some of the team behind the award-winning documentary film ‘The End of the Line’. BLUE aims to restore the ocean to heath by addressing overfishing, one of the world’s biggest environmental problems. BLUE is dedicated to creating marine reserves, restoring vital habitats and establishing models of sustainable fishing. BLUE’s mission is to see 30 per cent of the world’s ocean under effective protection by 2030.