Did you know the largest skate in the world lives in our local seas? The flapper skate can grow up to 3m in length and lives to 100 years old! However, these impressive facts are overshadowed by the reality that the species is classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. This mighty species is therefore on the verge of extinction [1].

Flapper skate egg case found on Benone Beach, NI. Image: David Patterson

How has a species which was once found throughout the shallow coastal waters of the British Isles, including historic hotspots such as Strangford Lough, found itself in this dire situation? Although no longer targeted commercially in the Irish Sea, the flapper skate was historically overfished. In fact, this skate represents the first clear case of a fish brought to the brink of extinction by commercial fishing [2]. The flapper skate was also a popular sport fish in the 60’s and 70’s, with people travelling from all over Europe to Northern Ireland specifically to catch them. Unfortunately, the most common procedure at the time was ‘catch and kill’. Together these pressures resulted in the overfishing of the species, leading to the drastic declines we continue to see today.

Flapper skate caught in Strangford Lough, 1960’s.

What is being done currently to protect this remarkable species?

The flapper skate is now protected under the Northern Ireland Wildlife Order (1985), designating the highest level of species-specific protection available in NI legislation [3]. It is therefore a criminal offence to commercially or recreationally target this species. If angling for this species, you must have the appropriate license that ensures the species is being ‘caught & released’ for research and conservation purposes. Furthermore, the flapper skate is also a priority species for NI and is on the OSPAR Annex V list of threatened and declining species [4].

Given the conservation importance of the flapper skate, DEARA have an obligation to implement measures that will conserve the remaining flapper skate populations in our local seas. Consideration is being given to the spatial protection of critical habitats for the flapper skate, such as sites for foraging or potential nursery areas. The protection of these sites are vital to ensure flapper skate numbers remain stable, therefore allowing the recovery of the species in our local waters in the future. During a 2016 selection of sites for Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) designation, there was insufficient data available within an Area of Search (AoS) for the flapper skate identified by DEARA. That is why Ulster Wildlife set up the Sea Deep Tagging Programme. 

Sea Deep is Ulster Wildlife’s shark conservation project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The project was launched in 2018 to establish a nation-wide tagging programme. This tagging programme is supported by local volunteer anglers who have been trained in best practice shark & skate ‘catch, tag & release’ techniques. With each shark and skate tagged for the programme, we have gathered a further understanding of the species in our waters, their distribution along the coast and important habitats for species. This work has also increased our understanding of how the flapper skate is using our local seas. A number of licensed anglers have now tagged 116 flapper skates, gathering information on presence, location, population health and sex ratios for the species. This growing data set is currently being used to identify critical habitats for the critically endangered species.

Licensed Sea Deep staff tagging flapper skate with best practice techniques. Photo Credit: Rebecca Hunter

What have we discovered so far about the flapper skate populations in our waters?

Tag data to date supports the AoS identified by DAERA, as well as highlighting the north coast of NI as an area that should be surveyed further. Our volunteer anglers will continue to tag for Sea Deep, providing data that offers an insight into how the flapper skate uses our local seas. Other recent and exciting finds from the project include the recording of a juvenile flapper skate by a volunteer angler and the first ever flapper skate egg case discovered in NI.

It is still early days in the monitoring of these species in NI waters, but these smaller insights into flapper skate presence are crucial for the conservation of a species that is on the brink. But how do these findings help us safeguard the flapper skate?

Today, there is only one Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the world designated for the Flapper skate, (Loch Sunart to the Sound of Jura Nature Conservation MPA, Scotland [5] ). This MPA affords the flapper skate protection, maintaining the current population status within this region.  With a further understanding of important sites to the flapper skate in NI waters, Sea Deep will advocate for similar protection with the designation of a MCZ.  This would offer protection for the flapper skate in our waters. This designation would also contribute to the wider MPA network [6]. As the flapper skate is a mobile species, with the potential for species movement between Scottish, Northern Irish and ROI waters, a second MPA would enhance the connectivity for the species across these regions whilst addressing the current gaps in the NI MPA network. Tagging from our volunteer anglers is crucial in making this happen.

This work also isn’t possible without support from the general public. This summer everyone who joined us on our ‘Flapper Skate Roadshow’ supported the conservation of the flapper skate by signing our pledge to protect the species in NI waters.

Ulster Wildlife volunteers at our ‘Flapper Skate Roadshow’ event, Portrush Coastal Zone

Globally & locally, we’re not only facing a climate crisis, but an unfolding biodiversity crisis. It is critical that we take action to protect all vulnerable species, including those that are out of sight in our oceans. The flapper skate isn’t just an iconic species, it’s our iconic species. With the ongoing work of the Sea Deep project and its supporters, we can help the flapper skate recover and flourish in our local seas once again.

To find out more visit http://www.seadeepNI.org

Or contact erin.mckeown@ulsterwildlife.org



[1] (https://www.nature.scot/plants-animals-and-fungi/fish/sea-fish/flapper-skate).

[2] https://www.daera-ni.gov.uk/articles/marine-protected-areas).

[3] https://www.legislation.gov.uk/nisi/1985/171/body

[4]https://www.marlin.ac.uk/species/detail/1436

[5] Brander, K. (1981). Disappearance of common skate Raja batis from Irish Sea. Nature290, 48-49

[6]https://www.iucnredlist.org/ja/species/203364219/203375487