The Flapper skate: Working to conserve NI’s most endangered species

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




Northern Ireland’s Political Seascape

In less than nine months from now, or potentially even sooner, an Assembly election will be announced, ending what has been a turbulent mandate for the political parties, people and nature of Northern Ireland. 

In 2016, 90 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) were elected to govern Northern Ireland, at least partially on the basis of their policy priorities, as signposted in manifestos, radio interrogations and various social media newsfeeds. Everything from health service reform, road and infrastructure upgrades, education overhaul and addressing environmental issues such as biodiversity decline and climate change, were mentioned. 

However, in early 2017, Stormont collapsed, and for more than 1000 days it remained closed to the people and important policy issues. Meanwhile, studies, reports, and investigations of all kindsi,ii,iii confirmed climate change risks were greater than ever, and that despite our best efforts, the state of nature in Northern Ireland continued to declineiv. In the marine environment, a withering reportv assessed UK’s progress towards achieving ‘Good Environmental Status‘ for our seas and laid bare our almost total failure to adequately protect marine species, habitats and ecosystems.  

School children march on parliament buildings backing the joint NIMTF, RSPB NI, and Ulster Wildlife campaign for a NI marine bill in 2012 (c)RSPB NI

Our seas produce half of the air we breathe. They sequester and store an incredible 31% vi of human-produced carbon dioxide each year. In the UK they are home to half of our breath-taking array of habitats and species – many of which are essential nursery areas for important plants and animals.

There is no longer any debate. To address the twin biodiversity and climate emergencies, political parties and candidates must put the protection, conservation and restoration of Northern Ireland’s seas front and centre of their election manifestos.

Without bold and immediate action, we put our most vulnerable and threatened wildlife, as well as the very ecosystem services society relies on so heavily for survival, further in jeopardy. 

Beadlet anemone hiding in a rockpool along the rugged coastline of Cushendall, Co. Antrim. (c)Donal Griffin

The Northern Ireland Marine Task Force are open and keen to talk to all political parties and candidates about the inclusion of marine recovery in their election manifestos, and have identified four priority areas which if addressed with the right level of ambition and political will, can turn the fate of our seas around. 

  1.  Recovering biodiversity as indicated by ‘Good Environmental Status’ for all our seas, as well as an effectively managed Marine Protected Area network 
  2.  Sustainable fisheries as indicated by all NI fisheries operating within scientific advice and having a low impact on the wider environment 
  3.  Sustainable development at sea as indicated by implementation of an ecosystem-based marine spatial plan for NI which puts the environment at the centre of decision making 
  4.  Blue climate action as indicated by the adequate protection and restoration of our most valuable blue carbon habitats and species

The time to act is now, and it looks increasingly likely that Northern Ireland will see its first ever Climate Change Bill passed with associated commitments to net-zero carbon emissions.  This is an encouraging sign that politicians in Northern Ireland are awake to the global issues facing its people as well as the important local issues too.

However, with an election on the cards, the question remains. Will the next tranche of party manifestos speak out and shout any louder for our marine environment?  

By Donal Griffin, Northern Ireland Marine Task Force officer. 

donalgriffin@nimtf.org

[i] IPCC Summary Report for Policy Makers (2019)

[ii] IPCC Summary report for Policy Makers (2021)

[iii] Gatusso et al., (2019) Ocean Solutions to Address Climate Change and Its Effects on Marine Ecosystems

[iv] State of Nature. A Summary for Northern Ireland (2019)

[v] Marine strategy part one: UK updated assessment and Good Environmental Status [v1] Gruber et al., (2019) The oceanic sink for anthropogenic CO2 from 1994 to 2007 

Ocean optimism on #WorldOceanDay: A Northern Ireland perspective

In the midst of the twin climate and biodiversity crises, where the current state of many habitats and wildlife are at risk or already in decline, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the pressures facing our natural environment. 

Unsustainable activities, pollution and the ever-increasing negative repercussions of climate change, paint a bleak picture of the future of our coasts and seas. Yet, despite all this, there is cause for hope – what some refer to as Ocean Optimism.  

On this #WorldOceanDay, here are some of the reasons why the Northern Ireland Marine Task Force (NIMTF) has cause to be Ocean Optimistic: 

Management due for Marine Protected Area (MPA) network 

On paper, the extent of the current MPA network in Northern Ireland is large. Covering more than 2410km2, it represents an area equivalent to all three Belfast, Derry City and Strabane, and the Mid and East Antrim local council areas combined.  However, a failure to introduce suitable management risks sites becoming ‘paper parks’ where protection exists in name only. Fortunately, policy proposals to manage fishing activity in nine NI MPAs will be published later this year and implemented from early 2022 onwards. This swathe of new protection represents a positive and significant step forward for some of our most vulnerable and important marine species.  

Undulate ray (Raja undulata) (c)Peter Vorhoog

Northern Ireland Blue Carbon can help tackle climate change  

A recent report by Ulster Wildlife, National Oceanography Centre and University of Hull, highlighted the importance of Northern Ireland’s coastal and marine habitats in helping to tackle the climate and nature crises. Local blue carbon habitats, such as kelp forests, saltmarsh, seagrass meadows and shellfish reefs, can remove and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – but also greatly help biodiversity by providing places for other marine wildlife to live, shelter and find food. Extraordinarily, the team of researchers also found there is the potential to triple the estimated blue carbon sequestration rate of the inshore MPA network through active management, habitat restoration and creation. 

Fishing industry calls for measures to preserve NI scallop stocks 

The Northern Ireland Scallop Association, in conjunction with Seafish, commissioned a scallop larval dispersal study with a view to identifying potential sites for closure and reseeding. With the future and sustainability of the fishery in mind, the NI Scallop Association subsequently called on DAERA to introduce regulations to prohibit bottom dredging within the four key sites. These proposals were consulted upon alongside the fishing management measures for MPAs, and should also be drafted into policy in the next 12 months. 

Minerstown, Dundrum Bay (c)Donal Griffin

Programme of measures imminent for Good Environmental Status 

At first, it can be difficult to see where the Ocean Optimism can be found when it comes to the overarching goal of the Marine Strategy UK. Eleven out of the 15 indicators used, failed to achieve ‘Good Environmental Status’ (GES). However, in collaboration with DAERA, the UK Government will soon consult on the programme of measures tasked with turning the fate of our seas and coasts around. If successful, these policies, programmes and projects will ensure by the next reporting round, GES is achieved across the board. The NIMTF will again be responding to the consultation ensuring it is ambitious enough, fit for purpose and will drive the real change needed for habitats and wildlife.  

NIMTF’s renewed vision for NI seas 

It is more important than ever, especially today on #WorldOceanDay, to create many more reasons for Ocean Optimism by valuing and protecting nature. This is why later this summer, NIMTF will publish our renewed vision for NI seas, and double our efforts to help drive the recovery of marine habitats and wildlife in Northern Ireland. 

Watch this space for NIMTF’s new report coming soon. 

Follow us on Twitter to keep up to date on our work and progress 

Find out more 

By Donal Griffin, Northern Ireland Marine Task Force officer

Protect our seas: Have your say on what activities should be allowed in our most important marine areas.

The Northern Ireland Marine Task Force (NIMTF) is encouraging everyone to take part in a new government consultation that will help restore our seas and the important marine life found within them.

A better future for our seas:

The seas around Northern Ireland are very special. They provide a home for over 50 % of our total biodiversity, including important fish, seabirds, plant life and marine mammals. Sadly, much of our marine wildlife is in decline as the legacy of past activities such as overfishing, combined with climate change and habitat loss, has severely threatened our sea life and their homes. One of the most powerful and effective methods of protecting marine wildlife is by designating Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – carefully selected sites which aim to conserve our unique and most vulnerable marine habitats and species. Over recent years Northern Ireland has designated a range of MPAs, and this network now covers 38 % of our sea area. But worryingly, current assessments show that only 4.5 % of these sites are adequately managed.

Black guillemot. Photo credit – Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

Addressing pressures from fishing:

But there is hope. By reviewing how our MPAs are managed and considering which activities will be allowed and which must be removed, we have a chance to turn this around. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) is currently asking organisations and members of the public to give their views on a range of new fisheries measures, including the restriction of mobile and static fishing practices in our MPAs. Commercial fishing methods such as trawling and dredging can damage sensitive habitats and marine life such as reefs, seagrass, sandbanks and maerl beds – the very features for which many of these sites are designated for. But we believe that well-managed MPAs are able to support sustainable fisheries and mitigate against the impact of climate change while also working to recover and revive our marine environment. Bold and ambitious measures are required to achieve this, and that’s why we’re asking for your help.

Your voice matters:

The consultation is live until 31st March and we’re asking as many people as possible to respond and support better management of our most important marine sites and for more sustainable fisheries to restore our seas.

The NIMTF are submitting a response in support of proposals to remove mobile gear fishing in each of the nine sites under consideration in the consultation. We also support the introduction of new measures to manage how pot fishing is regulated in these areas.

How to respond to the public consultation:

Click on this link and you will be taken to the public consultation page. Here you will be asked a series of questions on the development of fisheries management measures for MPAs and the establishment of scallop enhancement sites. 

There are nine sites being considered for better MPA management: Skerries and Causeway Coast, Rathlin Island, Waterfoot, Red Bay, Maidens, Outer Belfast Lough, Strangford Lough, Murlough and Carlingford Lough. You can give your views on all of the sites or to a select few areas that are locally important to you.

To support the NIMTF’s response, we would ask you to respond to the questions as follows:

YES – in support of the preferred option 2: to prohibit demersal mobile gear fishing.

YES – in support of the recommended option to prohibit static gear fishing.

YES – in support of the proposed measures to manage pot fishing, such as following best practice on biosecurity, mandatory vessel position monitoring, pot tagging, recording of bycatch and entanglements of protected species and the continued use of more selective gear.

Common seals on Rathlin Island. Photo credit – Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Enhancing scallop fisheries:

The second part of the consultation proposes closing four sites to mobile fishing gear. The NI fishing industry proposed these sites in response to their own concerns about the sustainability of local king scallop stocks. The four areas have been endorsed by the Northern Ireland Scallop Fishermen’s Association and the industry worked with scientists at AFBI, funded by Seafish, to identify these particular sites where there can be natural recovery of scallops which will then spill-over to supplement stocks on nearby commercial grounds. The sites will be a type of Marine Protected Area, feeding into the wider NI MPA network and they will have a range of benefits to local biodiversity in addition to scallop stocks. The NIMTF fully supports the recommended option to remove mobile fishing gear throughout these sites and asks that you respond YES in support of this option.

Birds, Puffin, close up with sandeels

Thank you for your help!

Ambitious and effective management is one way we can help restore our seas. We believe both marine wildlife and commercial fishing can thrive in seas that are well-managed and we urge you to join our cause to support healthier, productive and more resilient seas for us all.  

Dr. Kenneth Bodles, Marine Policy Officer, RSPB Northern Ireland.

Murlough

There is so much our coast and seas offer us. We should get out there and explore them and strive to protect them.

Although I live among the rolling drumlins of County Down, fortunately I’m not too far from the sea. When I was asked to write this blog, it made me think about the coast and seas that surround us and shape our lives on this island.

I know that the tiny plankton in our seas produce roughly half of all the oxygen in the atmosphere. I know that the harvests of the sea feeds us and supports many livelihoods. I know that as well as food and raw materials, we’ve imported but mostly exported people from these shores for years. I know roughly half of our biodiversity lives in the sea and that we need to do a much better job of protecting and managing it. I know that Strangford Lough is one of our most designated protected areas, that it is home to over 2,000 species and that we can watch around 80% of the world’s population of Brent geese flock to its shores every winter to feed. I know that despite its importance and all those designations, key features of this special place have been knowingly damaged.

Murlough – Michael MacMahon

I know the Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site and its most popular tourist attraction with over one million visitors in 2018.  I know that the exciting opportunities to generate huge amounts of renewable energy from the wind and waves will write some of the next chapters of our rich history.

When I think of our coast I think of the excitement uncovering crabs and sea anemones in rockpools brings to explorers big and small, of the thrill of seeing gannets drop from the sky and pierce the sea like black-tailed white arrows as they dive for fish just below the waves and of how the sights and sounds of the curlew and oystercatcher are so familiar and evocative. There is so much our coast and seas offer us. We should get out there and explore them and strive to protect them.

Keel Point – Michael MacMahon

I look forward to walking the expansive, sandy beach at Murlough outside Newcastle in the sunshine, while cooled by a gentle breeze as I meander in and out of the sea, heading towards where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea. I may go in the other direction to see if I can spot some of the seals that often laze around on the beach at Ballykinler, just like people might do. When I walk though the impressive dunes, on my way to and from the beach, I probably will think about why Ireland’s first nature reserve is also an Area of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation; about how it supports over 620 species of butterfly and moths including the delicate,  endangered marsh fritillary butterfly; about how this 6,000 year old dune system is threatened by the rising seas and extreme weather of a warming world and about how we need to do more to protect our coast and seas from the damage we are causing. I probably will look for some of the butterflies, flowers and birds that make this place so special as I wander through it but above all, when I step off the narrow boardwalk that stretches to touch the beach framed by the seemingly endless sea and sky, I’ll just savour the experience.  

Malachy Campbell – Senior Policy Officer – Northern Ireland Environment Link