Common name: Common skate
Latin name: Raja batis
Record weight: One of our largest coastal fish, the common skate record is also one of the most likely to be broken. The main factor stopping to from being claimed at present is the lack of adequate weighing equipment aboard boats, for several fish larger than the boat record have been landed, but returned as part of the on-going skate conservation project. The current boats record is a colossal 227lb, whilst the shore record stands as an incredible 169lb 6oz.
Distribution: Although they can be found in-shore, skate are a deep water fish, preferring water of over 100m deep. This limits most of the fishing grounds to the West coast of Ireland and Scotland where very deep water can be found within a few hundred metres of the shore. Skate are also commonly claimed to have been caught from the South East, although many of these fish are actually the much smaller thornback ray, which is often sold by fish-mongers as skate.
Actually, skate make poor eating compared to thornback and most of the commercial fishery that once existed for skate was for the animal feed market. A sad fate for such a tremendous fish. Tagging studies have indicated that skate may be territorial, never moving far from their previous capture points. This, coupled with their high age at maturity means that they are very susceptible to over-fishing.
Features: Common skate share many of the features of other rays, but are built to a much larger scale! Adult females may reach over nine feet in length and almost as wide across the wings! Males rarely weigh more than 130lb. The fish is a dark grey colour with white spots. The males are covered with spines that can inflict a serious wound to anyone grabbing the edges of the wings (I found out about this the hard way!) Large spines are also found along the mid-line of the tail. The nose of the skate tends to be longer and more pointed than that found in other species of ray.
Diet: Owing to it's large size there are few prey that the skate cannot handle. Other species of ray, lesser spotted dogfish, herrings and pilchards are all taken by this active predator. Whilst it may appear to be a bottom scavenger, it is known that skate will move into mid-water to feed and actively hunt live prey. When available, skate will also take crabs, langostines and lobsters. Skate do not appear to be keen on feeding on the remains of dead fish. Whilst fishing for them, fresh bait has always proven much more effective than less fresh offerings.
Spawning: Skate spawn in the Spring and Summer, this does seem to coincide with some migration, but little is known of exactly how the fish find each other. Like other rays, fertilisation is internal, with the male passing a pouch of sperm to the female using the claspers found either side of the tail. Once fertilised, the female releases the egg cases, commonly known as mermaid's purses. These egg cases have sticky threads in each corner which eventually anchor the egg to rocks or seaweed in shallower water. Each egg case is between 15-25cm in length, much larger than those of other rays. The embryo develops in the egg case for between 2-5 months before emerging as a tiny facsimile of the adult skate.
Growth: Very little is known about the growth of skate. Fortunately, commercial fishing in Scottish waters has all but ceased, as it became obvious that the population was close to collapse. Today there is a highly specialised sport fishing industry based around Oban and the Isle of Mull which practices catch and release of these magnificent fish. In conjunction with this sport fishery, a great deal of effort has been put into tagging all fish caught and also measuring their dimensions. Today it is possible to get a very good estimate of the fish's weight from measurements of its length and wing-span. In the future it is hoped that the tagging program will shed more light on the growth, movements and age of skate as more tagged fish are recaptured.