Critically endangered skate eggs discovered in the Inner Sound

A Skye fisherman involved in the discovery of more than 100 eggs belonging to a critically endangered type of skate in the Inner Sound has called for the government to take action to protect local seas from trawling and dredging.

Diver and eggs – Photo credit: Dave Ainsley

Over a hundred eggs belonging to the critically endangered flapper skate – previously known as the common skate – were discovered on the rocky seabed in the strait which separates Skye, Raasay and Rona from Applecross on the mainland.

The find 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.

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, 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.

Adult Skate – Photo credit: Chris Rickard

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.”

South skye fisherman Bally Philp is a member of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation and alongside other local fisherman helped volunteer divers in their search for the eggs which are know as mermaid’s purses.

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.

Local fisherman Bally Philp

Mr Philp 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 five per cent of Scotland’s inshore waters are protected from trawling and dredging, two of the most damaging methods of fishing.

Ailsa McLellan, co-ordinator at Our Seas, said: “The Scottish Government is failing to step up to its duties and deliver the protection that is needed. Less than five per cent 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.”