Divers have discovered egg-laying site belonging to the critically endangered flapper skate off the north west coast of Scotland. Photo: Blue Marine Foundation
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 claims the Blue Marine Foundation.
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, the Blue Marine Foundation claims that 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 details 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 percent 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 the 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 level of protection that a critically endangered animal such as the common or flapper skate currently receives in UK waters is utterly inadequate to the needs of the species. There are too few protected areas – particularly in Scotland – and other designated areas in UK waters, such as the Dogger Bank, receive far too little protection. We need to change the way our seas are managed or give up completely trying to conserve endangered species.”