Safeguarding Scotland’s critically endangered flapper skate

The Trust has welcomed the announcement of a new Marine Protected Area for flapper skate within the Inner Sound of Skye. Our Marine Policy Officer Bernadette Butfield explains why this announcement marks promising progress towards protecting a critically endangered species. 

The flapper skate (Dipturus intermedius) is a species of elasmobranch (the wider class of sharks, skates and rays) characterised by its cartilaginous skeleton. Like many other species of its kind, flapper skate are slow growing and late to mature, making them highly susceptible to overexploitation and poor population recovery.

Previously known as the ‘common skate’ due to its abundance in British waters, the flapper skate has been in decline for decades and is now extinct in most of its former range.

Scottish waters, particularly the west coast, the surrounding Outer Isles and Orkney, offer one of the last strongholds for flapper skates in the world.

At present, the Loch Sunart to the Sound of Jura Marine Protected Area is the only site designated to protect flapper skate. It focuses primarily on adult skate. In 2016, it became illegal to fish using towed gears in certain parts of this area.

Flapper skate © Jane Dodd / NatureScot

Often referred to as ‘barn doors’ by anglers, flapper skate can grow to more than 2.5 metres in length, making this one of the largest skate species in the world. It has been illegal for fisheries to target flapper skate commercially since 2009, but the large size of the species has led to high levels of accidental capture (bycatch) by the fishing industry, particularly in trawl nets.

To limit bycatch, some fishing vessels use nets fitted with skate panels. These allow juvenile flapper skate to escape without the need to release the entire catch. Despite these efforts,

There is a further threat to flapper skate egg cases, or ‘mermaid’s purses’. These range between 14–28cm in length and take around 18 months to hatch. Their slow growth and large size mean the eggs are highly susceptible to incidental capture, or damage by towed fishing gears.

Flapper skate egg cases seen underwater © JO Beaton

Following initial observations in 2019, scuba divers exploring a site in the Inner Sound of Skye in October 2020 discovered more than 100 flapper skate egg cases  – the largest egg-laying site for the species found anywhere in the world to date.

The importance of this discovery is reflected by Marine Scotland’s emergency designation of the Red Rocks and Longay urgent Marine Protected Area. Marine Scotland have stated that “the site will protect a nationally important flapper skate egg nursery area, which is the largest of its kind to be identified in Scotland.”

Map of the new Marine Protected Area © Marine Scotland

The announcement is Marine Scotland’s second designation of an urgent Marine Protected Area using the powers contained within the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. The first designation was used in 2017 to protect important flame shell beds in Loch Carron.

The urgent marine conservation order will come into force on 17 March 2021. This prohibits access to the area for a number of marine activities, including fishing, diving and construction, for an initial period of twelve-months. After this time, Marine Scotland will commence a full stakeholder engagement process, impact assessment and public consultation to develop permanent protection for the area.

The Trust will continue to engage throughout the process of the Marine Protected Area’s designation and implementation, and we support permanent protection for this important site.

How you can help flapper skate

Citizen science data can help conservation efforts and secure further protection for flapper skate in the future. If you are lucky enough to find a flapper skate egg-case, or any other egg-cases, please report them through the Shark Trust’s Great Eggcase Hunt website.

Bernadette Butfield, Marine Policy Officer

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The Trust has welcomed the announcement of a new Marine Protected Area for flapper skate within the Inner Sound of Skye. Our Marine Policy Officer Bernadette Butfield explains why this …

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