Common Skate

Common Skate
  • Scientific name: Dipturus batis (but see below)
  • Also known as: Blue Skate
  • 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)
  • IGFA all-tackle world record: 214lb
  • 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 a long tail. The 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. The 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 and the absence of a swim bladder. A fully grown skate can have 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 which is several 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 which 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.

The common skate was once widely distributed 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 skate 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, with both recreational and commercial fishing responsible. Today the common skate is one of the most endangered species in the world with the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) classing skate as Critically Endangered meaning that this species is at an extremely high risk of extinction in the near future. However, awareness of the endangered status of skate is now high, with anglers only fishing for the species on a strict catch-and-release basis – see the Potential Record Catches Returned section below. 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. In October 2020 more than one hundred skate eggs were found at a site off the northwest coast of Scotland – one of the biggest skate egg-laying sites ever found. Conservationists warned that the site was vulnerable to trawling and dredging and highlighted how such areas needed to be protected from commercial fishing to let both skate and the wider marine environment recover. In March 2021 the Scottish Government announced that they were designating the site as a Marine Protected Area in order to protect the area from commercial fishing and allow the skate nursery to be established there.

Commercial Value of Skate

Uncooked Skate Wing
An 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 4.3 million that skate was a “delicious” and “sustainable” alternative to cod and said that there were “plenty of skate in the sea.” Consumer demand for skate reportedly rose following the show. In 2009 the European Union passed legislation banning the targeted commercial fishing of skate in EU waters and required fishermen to release any skate which are inadvertently caught when fishing for other species. 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 is believed that skate continues to be landed at ports and harbours around the UK and the EU, with difficulties in identifying skate and distinguishing them from similar species such as rays complicating the issue.

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 look 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

Skate are generally targeted by boat anglers but shore anglers sometimes catch them when fishing for large species such as conger or tope. Extremely committed anglers put a great deal of time and effort into locating and fishing for skate and 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 are worth 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 is 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 rig or other form of clipped down rig. Best baits are mackerel flapper or whole mackerel, bluey, very large sandeels or herrings. It can also be worth trying flatfish such as dab or flounder as these are the species which skate are most likely to be adapted to feeding on.

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, Lancashire. 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 in 2010. The biggest of which was conservatively estimated to weight 192lb and would have beaten the existing British record of 169lb which has stood since 1994.

A 196lb skate caught in Scottish waters.
A 196lb boat caught skate which was returned after capture in Scottish waters in 2019.

 Verifying this as a record would have required the fish to be killed and weighed on certified 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 235lb skate off the coast of Oban, Scotland. This would have broken the existing boat caught record of 227lb. 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 it to the water rather than kill it 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 weigh 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 since 1758 was actually two separate species. 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. In most sea angling literature this species is still referred to as a single species and the name common skate continues to be used. However, the scientific community has split this species into the blue skate (which has retained the scientific name Dipturus batis) and the flapper skate which has the scientific name Dipturus intermedius.