Scientists are calling on Scotland’s anglers to help save one of the largest and rarest creatures in British waters.
The common or flapper skate can grow more than 2m in length and weigh more than 90kg but despite its name, the fish is classified as critically endangered - making it more at risk of extinction than the giant panda.
Anglers throughout Scotland are being encouraged by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) to send any photographs of common skate to Skatespotter, a new online catalogue launching today.
The project aims to help conserve this remarkable diamond-shaped species through identifying individual fish by the distinctive spot patterns on their backs and studying their movements.
Dr Jane Dodd, Marine Operations Officer at SNH, said: “We’re launching Skatespotter with more than 1,500 images of nearly 800 individual flapper skate, taken by volunteer anglers in the Loch Sunart to the Sound of Jura Marine Protected Area (MPA).
“This MPA has a healthy population of the endangered fish, which made it easier to collect photographs, and anglers have been fundamental in providing the data to designate the area as an MPA – but to understand skate movements and populations we want to see anglers’ photographs of skate from all over Scotland.”
Common skate have been listed as critically endangered since 2006 as a result of overfishing. In 2009 it became illegal to land skate in most of Europe which means any skate caught as bycatch should be released unharmed.
All angling for this species in Scotland is on a “catch and release” basis. Recapturing previously identified skate suggests there is no harm to the fish when released. However, common skate are still at risk from unintentional capture in mobile gear such as trawls and dredges.
Dr Steven Benjamins, from SAMS, said: “It may sound time-consuming but we’ve found the human eye is the most accurate way to identify individual skate.
“We’ve already identified nearly 800, though the number skews mostly female. This is likely because female skate are bigger, and anglers have been excited about sharing those images in the past.
“But we’re also really keen to monitor the smaller, male fish and encourage anglers to send us photographs of all common skate they catch, all over Scotland, regardless of size.”
Anglers can help monitor the skate population by uploading photographs to https://skatespotter.sams.ac.uk/
Common skate have been classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as critically endangered, which is one category away from extinct in the wild. Animals are assessed based on criteria including population size, change, and distribution. In 2016, the IUCN downgraded the giant panda from endangered to vulnerable.