Scientific Divers from Heriot-Watt University were recently undertaking research surveys in the Wyre and Rousay Sound Marine Protected Area, Orkney when a giant skate unexpectedly swam along their survey line.
Professor Hamish Mair was in the process of filming the maerl seabed as part of the research to record the biodiversity and ecosystem services of this protected environment, when the ray swam by. Hamish was able to let the camera roll so the footage captured enabled local skate expert Dan Wise from the Orkney Skate Trust to make an identification of the animal.
The specimen was a female common skate (Dipturus batis), also known as ‘flapper skate’ due the large size of the wing span reached. Although the name suggests it may be common, the species is now considered to be rare. Previously assessed as Endangered globally and Critically Endangered in shelf and enclosed seas in the 2000 IUCN Red List, it has been upgraded to Critically Endangered globally in 2006.
Dan Wise said, “We have been maintaining records of this rare fish since 2005 and have collated what looks to be a significant dataset on the fish activity around Orkney. Initial results show that Orkney and surrounding waters are a significant stronghold for the species and could along with the Western Isles and Shetland become incredibly important for the future survival of the species as it continues to decline from its former geographical range”.
So far in 2015, over 6,000 egg cases of the common skate have been found washed up along the north mainland coast of Orkney. Penny Martin of the Orkney Field Club has been walking the beaches regularly and making counts of the egg cases in an effort to understand the abundance of skates in Orkney waters and to learn more about where the potential spawning grounds might be.
Penny was recently interviewed on the BBC Springwatch programme where she explained, “These large numbers of egg cases indicate that Orkney must be a significant breeding ground for this endangered species and it is important for anybody finding egg cases to report them to enable information to be shared to help protect their breeding grounds".
You can watch this episode at BBC Springwatch 2015 Episode 06. The Orkney skate footage starts at 48 minutes.