Skate spotting and eggcase hunting

SNH skate tracking intern Rachel Mawer reflects on a recent trip to the Outer Hebrides and Shetland to raise awareness of some fascinating marine projects.

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A skate from the Firth of Lorn © Roger Eaton

Back in November, in conjunction with the Scottish Association for Marine Science, we launched the Skatespotter website. Skatespotter allows anglers to upload photos they have taken of common skate for photo identification based on their spot patterns. At the moment, our skate photo-ID work has been focused in the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura MPA to monitor the skate population there. However, we are hoping to build a database of common skate for the whole of Scotland. To this end, myself and my colleague Jane travelled to the Outer Hebrides and Shetland recently to meet anglers there and promote the project.

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One of our regular skippers in the MPA, Ronnie Campbell, taking a photo of a skate © Jane Dodd

In presentations in Stornoway and Lerwick, I gave a brief background on common skate and the past and current work SNH has done on the species in the Marine Protected Area (MPA), before moving on to how anglers can help, by taking photos and submitting them through Skatespotter. The talk finished with some slides giving them a shot at matching skate – it wasn’t as easy as they thought!

The anglers who attended were all very interested in our work and enthusiastic. It was great to be able to meet them and learn what they were willing to share about skate in their area. Even though some had been fishing for skate for years, they were shocked at how little we actually know about common skate. Despite their name, common skate are critically endangered and very rare across much of their former range. Along the west and north coasts of Scotland, and around the Outer Hebrides and Shetland and Orkney, they are still abundant – some even view them as a pest!

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We match skate based of the shape, size and position of their spot patterns, by looking at similar clusters as circled above ©  Ronnie Campbell

Our photo-ID work in the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura MPA is an important tool for monitoring the skate population there; through it we can estimate population size and survivability. When we know what parts of the MPA a skate has been caught in, we can also learn a bit about their movements (or lack of!). But, we don’t know much about common skate elsewhere in the country.  This is why it is important that we start to reach out to anglers throughout Scotland and gather data on common skate in different places. Plus, by collecting images from further afield, we may begin to gain an insight into long distance movements in common skate. We’ve already started receiving skate photos from the anglers and hopefully this will be the beginning of a Scotland-wide skate photo ID database.


An eggcase from a lesser spotted dogfish © Mike Arreff

While in the Outer Hebrides, we also promoted the Shark Trust’s Great Eggcase Hunt, which helps describe shark, skate and ray species distribution throughout British waters. On North Uist, I met members of some local natural history groups to hunt for eggcases.  Although many were seasoned beach combers, a few were not aware that the “mermaid’s purses” dotted about the beach were in fact the eggcases of sharks and skate. Some sharks and all skate reproduce by laying eggs. Eggcases vary in size and shape, and this tells us what species laid it.

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Hunting for eggcases © Mike Arreff

Recording the location and species of eggcase to the Shark Trust shows what species we get in our waters and where. It also indicates how diverse the shark and skate population is in different areas. Our eggcase hunt was very successful, with most of the group finding something. Hopefully, this event will have made more people aware of what they can find on their local beaches and encourage them to report eggcases to the Shark Trust.


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