Common Skate

Common Skate
  • Scientific name: Dipturus batis (now unaccepted, see below)
  • Size: Up to 9ft (from wingtip to wingtip) and over 250lbs.
  • UK minimum size: 16ins/41cm (from wingtip to wingtip), but see endangered status below.
  • UK shore caught record: 169lb 6oz
  • UK shore caught notable catch: 226lb (estimated)
  • IUCN Status: CR (Critically Endangered)
  • Distribution: Once widespread throughout the UK but populations now severely depleted and restricted to the deep sea lochs of the west of Scotland and west coast of Ireland.
  • Feeds on: Will take crustaceans and shellfish, as well as other fish such as flatfish. Larger skate will also hunt in mid-water for pelagic fish.
  • Description: Diamond shaped body with long tail. Snout is long and pointed. Back is usually brown in colour, although sometimes greenish, and features lighter coloured spots. There are twelve to twenty spines or horns running along the tail, and mature skate may have small thorns on the body. Underside is pale to white, sometimes with a bluish tinge.
  • Additional notes: In some parts of the UK and Ireland the term skate is used to describe thornback rays, as well as other species of ray. It has also come to attention that there are actually two separate species of common skate (see below).

Size and Diet

Skate Swimming

Animation showing the way a skate uses its wings to swim.

The common skate is the largest species of skate in the world, and, is one of the largest creatures in British waters. Skate (along with rays) are closely related to sharks, sharing common features such as a skeleton made out of cartilage. A fully grown skate can be massive with a wingspan of eight or nine feet and weigh in excess of 250lbs. Skate of this size are thought to be up to seventy years old. Skate are found in water up to around two hundred metres deep, although they will come into shallower water during warmer weather. They feed on crustaceans and molluscs (their incredibly powerful jaws can easily crunch through the shells of these creatures), while they will also feed on fish, especially flatfish such as dab, plaice and flounder that they are most likely to find along the seabed. Skate are perfectly capable of catching pelagic species such as mackerel, herring, pollock and dogfish, with larger skate likely to feed mostly by hunting fish.

Critically Endangered Status

Caught Skate

All anglers now fishing for skate are happy to pose for a photo and then return the fish to the sea.

Despite the name the common skate is anything but common these days. It was once a numerous species across much of the British Isles, but skate have been massively overfished for decades, meaning they are now critically endangered. Because of the large sizes skates can reach they were constantly targeted by anglers, and as they are non-migratory and spend their entire life in one fairly small area, fishing could take place all year round – meaning populations in entire areas have been wiped out. Often skate were caught by boat anglers, taken back to shore, photographed and then thrown back into the sea dead. This has led to skate populations being decimated around the country, and this time it was recreational anglers who were to blame as much as the commercial fishing operations. Today the common skate is one of the most endangered species in the world. Indeed, the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) class skate as Critically Endangered – meaning that this species is at an extremely high risk of extinction in the near future. However, awareness of the predicament of the skate is now high, and all anglers fishing for skate are aware of the importance of returning this species alive and in good condition. Many anglers also take part in tagging programmes which are used to record skate numbers and track the distribution and growth rates of skate around the UK. The reduction in skate numbers means that UK skate populations are restricted to isolated areas. Parts of the west of Scotland such as Oban and Loch Ryan hold skate, as do locations on the west coast of Ireland.

Commercial Value of Skate

Uncooked Skate Wing

A uncooked skate wing for human consumption.

Skate are edible with the wings the most commonly consumed part of this species. The flesh has a mild and pleasant flavour and is sometimes cut into shapes and sold as fake scallops. In 2007 celebrity TV chef Gordon Ramsay was heavily criticised when he promoted eating skate on the Jonathan Ross Show on BBC One. He told an audience of millions that skate was a “delicious” alternative to cod and said that there were “plenty of skate in the sea.” Consumer demand for skate reported rose following the the show. In 2009 the European Union passed legislation which meant that skate caught in most of Europe’s waters had to be returned to the sea alive and could not be retained. As skate have no swim bladder they stand a much higher chance of surviving when returned to the sea by commercial vessels compared to most other species. Despite the EU-wide ban it was reported that almost ten tonnes of skate had been landed at ports and harbours between 2011 and 2014. However, report which published the questioned whether the figures represented illegal fishing and sale of skate, or whether there is on-going issues over other species being mis-identified as skate.

Jenny Hanivers

Jenny Haniver

Jenny Haniver

Skate (and rays) have been used throughout history as the basis for fake miniature sea monsters. As the mouth and nostrils on the underside of this species looks somewhat like a humanoid face, people would carve out the belly of caught skate and ray to resemble a body around this face. The creation would be dried, preserved and varnished, and then passed off as a small devil or monster. These would either be sold as a curiosity, or used to scare people into believing stories about the occult or providing evidence for the existence of evil monsters. Creations made in France were named Jeune d’Anvers which was in turn anglicised to Jenny Hanivers by British sailors who brought them back to Britain. Jenny Hanivers are thought to date from the early 1500s. Swiss biologist and natural historian Conrad Gessner – seen as the father of modern zoology – was wise to the Jenny Haniver hoax several hundred years ago, warning in his 1558 book Historia Animalium vol. IV that they were simply modified and preserved skate carcasses (although he did also think unicorns were real, so maybe he wasn’t that clever after all).

Methods and Techniques to Catch Skate

It is generally boat anglers which target skate. However, anglers sometimes catch them when targeting large species such as conger or tope, and extremely committed anglers put a great deal of time and effort into locating and fishing for skate. Catching any skate from the shore is a huge achievement for an angler. The best idea would be to listen to local boat reports and find an area where skate have been caught (only the west of Scotland or Ireland would be worthwhile trying) and find a mark there that allows casting into deep water. Heavy-duty gear is a must with stiff rough ground beachcastes and large powerful multiplier reels such as the Diawa SL30 necessary. Mainlines of around 30-40lb are needed and rigs should consist of size 8/0 heavy gauge hooks, hooklengths of at least 100lb+ monofilament and are best used in a pulley or other form of clipped down rig. Best baits are mackerel flapper or whole mackerel, or as skate are unfussy any other fish bait such as very large sandeel or herrings, or even flatfish such as dab or flounder are worth a try.

Potential Record Catches Returned

While it is extremely difficult to catch a skate from the shore it is not impossible. One angler who put in the effort to find skate was Damian Greenwood from Accrington. After painstaking research he and business partner Morgan Rothwell found a mark on the west coast of Scotland that produced an amazing five skate in a single fishing session. The biggest of which was conservatively estimated to weight 192lb and would have smashed the existing British record of 169lb which has stood since 1994. However, verifying this as a record would have required the fish to be killed and weighed on verified scales, something Mr. Greenwood refused to do. The fish was instead released after taking a few photographs. Understandably the exact location of the mark has been kept secret. In 2013 the boat record for rod and line caught skate could have been broken when David Griffiths from Sarn, Powys caught a 235 lb skate off the coast of Oban, Scotland. This would have broken the existing boat caught record of 227lb. However, like Damian Greenwood he also refused to kill the skate (which was also reportedly pregnant) and returned it to the sea. Since the rules state that the fish has to be weighed on land this meant that he could not claim the record. Griffiths told “I wouldn’t kill a fish to say I have got the World record or British record … It wasn’t just because it was pregnant.”

Skate and the Notable Fish List

The British Rod Caught Fish Committee now have a Notable Fish List which is a means of recognising anglers who have caught exceptional fish but have returned them to the water rather than kill them to claim the record. Fish added to this list are measured and the weight estimated. Currently Craig Mackay has a place on the list for a shore caught skate which was measured at 87 inches in length and had a wingspan of 74 inches. This skate was caught in 2014 off the east coast of Scotland and was estimated to weight 226lbs. Roy Anderson is listed on the Notable Fish List for boat caught skate with a specimen which was caught in 2012 off the coast of the Orkney Islands and was estimated to weigh 229lbs.

Update – Scientific re-classification: In 2009 scientific research showed that the species which had been known as the common skate (Dipturus batis) since 1758 was actually two separate species: the flapper skate (Dipturus intermedia), and the blue skate (Dipturus flossada). Apparently, 19th century scientific advice had drawn attention to the fact that they were two separate species of skate, but an influential 1926 study insisted that there was only a single species and this remained unchallenged until the 2009 research. While the numbers of both species are in serious trouble the smaller and more resilient blue skate is in slightly better condition than the flapper skate which is truly on the very verge of extinction.

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