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Skates and Rays
Skates and rays are flat, cartilaginous fishes that are closely related to sharks. They all belong to the subclass Elasmobranchii and the class Chondrichthyes, and so when we refer to ‘sharks’, we also include skates and rays.
There are over 600 species of skate and ray worldwide and at least 16 of these are regularly recorded in UK coastal waters. They occur over a variety of sea-floor habitats and are valued by both commercial and recreational anglers.
In the UK, species with long snouts are commonly known as skates while those with shorter snouts are called rays. However, this is not scientifically accurate and can cause great confusion, for example the Thornback Ray is called a ray but is actually a skate, if you take it’s morphology into account. Throughout the website, we refer to skates and rays by their common UK names to help minimise any confusion. To find out more about the scientific classification of skates and rays click here.
All true skates lay distinct eggcases that vary in size and shape, whereas true rays and electric rays give birth to live young. The young skates develop within the egg capsule over a period of 6-9 months and hatch as miniature adults. The eggcases, (otherwise known as mermaids purses), which served to protect the developing young skate, often wash ashore after hatching and can be found on beaches. The presence of large numbers of eggcases on a beach may indicate a nursery ground nearby. Public reporting of washed up eggcases forms the basis of the Shark Trust’s Great Eggcase Hunt Project.
Skates are long-lived animals. They take 5-10 years to mature and lay relatively few eggs (about 40 - 150 a year), making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing, whether by trawls, longlines or set nets. Large juveniles are often caught before they have started breeding and most species can’t rapidly replace the animals that are removed by fisheries. Smaller species tend to grow and breed more rapidly, however they are of lower commercial value than large-bodied species.
For these same reasons, skates and rays do not tend to support large commercial fisheries, which mean they have received far less attention from researchers and fisheries managers than the more economically-important bony fish species. These factors make the largest skates and rays among the most threatened species in British waters. For example, the Common Skate (now recognised as two distinct species: Blue Skate and Flapper Skate), the biggest and formerly one of the more abundant species around the British Isles, is now absent from much of its former range. Conversely, populations of some of the smallest species, such as the Cuckoo Rays and Spotted Rays, remain healthy.
➤ Find out more about British skates and rays.
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