Flapper Skate MPA: A Case Study

Skate, MPA, Protection, Flapper Skate
Skate © Chris Rickard

Dr Lauren Smith, Marine Biologist, www.saltwaterlife.co.uk

The flapper skate, Dipturus intermedius, is the largest of all European skate and rays (Superorder: Batoidea). It is found in coastal waters of the European continental shelf and slopes in the North-East Atlantic. It is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species.

In late October 2019 a scallop diver found a single flapper skate eggcase in the Inner Sound of Skye, this instigated a discussion about a handful of eggcases observed in a particular spot over recent years and led to my friend and colleague Chris Rickard diving this location on the 8th Nov 2019. This initial trip was made possible thanks to the use of a scallop diving boat owned by Aly Hughson of Keltic Seafare.

As Chris explored this site, he noticed a slightly raised area and went to investigate further. The seabed showed a gradual change from being silty and flat to a raised boulder field. In between the gaps of these small boulders there were flapper skate eggcases! On this short single dive more than 40 eggcases were observed at varying stages of development, a few were handled very carefully and a torch light shone underneath giving a reasonably clear view of the contents. In some only the yolk could be seen indicating they had been laid relatively recently, others you could see the wiggling developing embryos of varying sizes (eggcases were gently placed back in situ). Several empty eggcases were also observed.

Flapper Skate

Shortly after Chris had returned to the surface I received several extremely excited messages! What a find!!!! As far as we were aware this was the largest egg-laying site of the critically endangered flapper skate to be found off mainland Scotland! We began discussing who to contact about getting this site recognised for what it was (an essential habitat for a critically endangered species) and given appropriate protection.

So on the 10th Nov 2019 Chris sent out an email detailing the site to representatives of the following; Marine Scotland, NatureScot, Marine Conservation Society, Shark Trust, Seasearch, Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, St Andrews University, Keltic Seafare and myself (Saltwater Life). Following this initial email there was plenty back and forth chatter primarily relating to the sampling of eggcases for DNA studies by NatureScot and Aberdeen University, but little clarification on whether the site would be granted some form of protection.

Having had no response from Marine Scotland I emailed several contacts on the 25th of November 2019, at this point we did get a response and the organisation of a NatureScot led survey of the site to verify its existence and to sample some of the eggcases began.

This survey eventually happened in early March 2020 where approximately 60 eggcases were sampled (small snip from the outer ‘apron’ of the eggcase), and all of the eggcases were returned to the seabed (the aim: to determine if all of the eggcases were laid by a single female or several, although I think it can be argued that the number and the various stages of development would indicate multiple females use this site).


Shortly after of course the pandemic hit and it wasn’t until the story came out on the 2nd of October 2020 about the flapper skate that had been hatched out in captivity at SAMS Aquarium (Scottish Association for Marine Science) and was being released to the wild, that we realised that as far as we were aware no progression had been made in regards to the site.

Whilst we were pleased to hear about the successful hatching of this flapper (a female had released this eggcase on the deck of a boat and so it had been housed in the aquarium with a chance to observe development), and it did of course provide an incredible insight into the development time (18 months) we found it a little hypocritical that such a large fuss was being made over one individual, when a large number of eggcases had been found at a site which was simply not being recognised as the critically important habitat it is.

NatureScot were contacted and it was confirmed that a scientific paper was in a final draft form and yet still no mention of permanent protection (it should be noted that at this point there was a seasonal ban in place on mobile fishing gear i.e.: trawlers and dredgers in this location, however this was unrelated to the eggcases and would also be removed on the 31st March 2021, so of course time was of the essence).


We realised that we would need to start applying more pressure and involve more interested parties if we were to set in motion positive progressive action for the site. We organised a meeting on the 8th October 2021 via Our Seas Coalition to discuss our next steps, from this talks began with a handful of like-minded divers from the organisation Seasearch and Sealife Adventures, as well as an environmental film-maker (Little Green Island Films), Blue Marine Foundation, scallop divers and creel fishermen.

During these discussions we learnt from David Ainsley (Sealife Adventures), about a similar site where flapper skate eggcases had been observed and then dived again at later point in time, during this return to the site it was evident that a dredger had completely ripped through it!

So our fears at this point were: could this have happened to the site in the Inner Sound? Yes there is a seasonal ban in place and yet we were also aware that illegal dredging activities were occurring. Yes the site had small boulders, and as such one could argue not suitable for dredging, and yet the surrounding area was flat and silty and supported a healthy scallop population, and so there was the potential that this could be targeted (intentionally or otherwise).

In short we had no idea if the site was still intact and so the decision was made to go and survey the site on the 14th October 2020 to find out (obviously taking into account and adhering to all of the pandemic guidelines).

Skate egg, skate, Flapper Skate
Eggcase © David Ainsley

Dive Surveys

On the 14th of October, 5 dives were undertaken. At the main site, on one of those dives 93 purses were counted. On other dives which covered different directions from the shot line, additional purses were counted so in excess of 118 eggcases (further dives later in the year now suggest >200 eggcases) were observed all of varying stages of development and again with several empty eggcases also seen (some were collected by myself for DNA sampling).

Interestingly we also found an extremely dense patch of eggs with over 40 purses in approx. 2m square! We also dived a couple of other locations that appeared to have similar bathymetry, 1 purse was observed on one dive and a patch of 7 were observed on another.

Following this successful survey and now that we had confirmation that the site was still viable, Blue Marine Foundation organised media coverage to help get the message out there to the general public and ramp up the pressure to afford this site suitable protective measures, this story broke on the 19th October 2020 by Sky News and the Herald and was picked up by plenty others.

Despite this it wasn’t until the 15.01.2021 that Chris Rickard, David Ainsley and I had a zoom meeting with NatureScot to discuss our concerns. NatureScot confirmed that they had provided Marine Scotland with their advice however in order to know what this advice was we had to FOI (Freedom of information) them. It’s worth noting that NatureScot’s assessment considered Creel Fishing/Scallop Diving/Recreational Diving to be low risk.


Unfortunately we did not receive the advice from NatureScot until AFTER Marine Scotland called a meeting with us (Chris Rickard, David Ainsley and I) on the 3rd February 2021, this meeting was requested by Marine Scotland at extremely late notice the night before (2nd Feb 2021). Fortunately we were able to attend, unbeknown to us at the time Marine Scotland had also requested meetings with Creel Fishermen (but not Scallop Divers, despite them being involved from the start, in the end a meeting did take place but only because it was specifically requested by Aly Hughson) – why not just have one meeting with us all? From that very first email Chris Rickard sent out, we were all included so why separate us now?

In the meeting with Marine Scotland we made clear our concerns for mobile gear; direct damage to the eggcases, potential capture/damage of hatched neonates, juveniles inhabiting the site as well as mature adults visiting the site. Also if the buffer zone around the site was not large enough then potentially sediment churned up by dredgers and bottom trawlers could cover the eggcases (as they are left open and uncovered it is reasonable to assume that this is important for allowing the seawater to circulate via the splits in the eggcase that occur as the embryo develops).

Due to the fact that we had dived locations away from the main site and discovered more eggcases, in addition to the PMFs (Priority Marine Features) already mapped out around this site, we urged Marine Scotland to adopt the precautionary principle and protect a larger area from MOBILE gear. We stated that low impact sustainable fishing practices i.e.: creeling and scallop diving posed little threat to the eggcase site.

Flapper Skate MPA

The measures announced on the 10th March 2021 by the Scottish Government for an emergency marine protected area (MPA) known as the Red Rocks and Longay Urgent MPA, came into force on the 17th March 2021 for 12 months. The area which covers 6 km2 is Scotland’s largest no take zone (there is only one other), but falls short of a larger area initially proposed by NatureScot (which would have included other sensitive habitats and priority marine features such as flame shell reefs and maerl beds).

This emergency conservation order prohibits a number of marine activities including commercial mobile fishing (towed gear) and construction as well as low impact fishing such as creel fishing and scallop diving as well as recreational diving. This blanket ban does not tally with the scientific advice provided by NatureScot (who deemed creel fishing and diving to be low risk to the eggcases), nor with stakeholders.

Marine Scotland have banned the very people that first reported the site and wanted to see the site protected. Low impact fishing and recreational businesses will suffer economically as a result of doing the right thing for the habitat and the species. This decision risks alienating those advocating for protective measures. These temporary 12 month measures will be in place whilst a full consultation will be carried out by/in 2022 by Marine Scotland to develop permanent measures for the site.

(Note: Chris, Creel Fishermen and I have also undertaken additional dive surveys at other sites within the Inner Sound and preliminary research has been undertaken by deploying BRUVS– Baited Remote Underwater Video Stations. With the MPA in place further research by ourselves will not be carried out in this location, but we intend to continue in other areas around the Scottish coastline).

Dr Lauren Smith, Marine Biologist: www.saltwaterlife.co.uk, https://www.facebook.com/SWLUK/, Twitter & Insta: @SaltwaterlifeUK.

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