As restrictions on water sports continue to be eased, we would like to share the Skatespotter Project, led by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). Common or Flapper Skate (Dipturus intermedius) are considered critically endangered. By using unique body markers individuals can be identified from photographs, allowing us to gain new insights into these fascinating fish. Jane Dodd leads the project for SNH and has shared with us how the project was set up and the results from Shetland so far.
In 2016 Steven Benjamins, a researcher at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) received around 400 digital photos of Flapper Skate taken between 2011 and 2016 from Ronnie Campbell a skate charter skipper operating out of Oban. Steven was able to identify around 250 individual skate with several recaptures by recognising the spot patterns on their backs (Benjamins et al 2018). These 250 skate became the foundation for Skatespotter, an online database of flapper skate photos submitted by charter skippers and anglers. Anglers upload their photos to the website and they are checked against the existing catalogue of photos by staff and volunteers at SNH and SAMS. New recaptures are added and if the skate can’t be matched to the catalogue it is added as a new fish. The majority of the data so far is from the Argyll area where both sexes appear to spend most of their time in a small home range, females even more so because they are recaptured more often. We have 2 females who have been captured 17 times, Di000031 was captured 17 times between 2014 and 2020 and Di000369 was captured 17 times between 2016 and 2019.
In January 2020, Skatespotter was updated to include skate captured in the Portpatrick area and in the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland. So far 39 skate have been submitted from Shetland since 2019 and there have been no recaptures but we remain hopeful that as the number of photos in the catalogue grows and time goes by we will edge closer to a recapture. We have noticed that so far Shetland skate are a bit more spotty than Argyll skate. Most Shetland skate have very symmetrical patterns of spots or whorls on the wings made up of small spots on a background of very small spots whereas Argyll skate usually have a simple symmetrical pattern of large spots on a plain background. On a couple of Shetland skate the spots have spread creating a complex pattern of lines and squiggles.
If you are keen to get involved please have a look at our Skate Handling Best Practice Guide before heading out to fish. In addition to the photo, you will be asked to provide the general location where the skate was caught, the date and time it was caught, its gender and size. The best photos for identification are taken from above and include the whole skate including the base of the tail, further advice on taking good photos of skate for photo ID is available in our Guidance. You can upload your photos to Skatespotter here. We are also interested in receiving reports of skate strandings. The vertebrae and measurements from stranded animals will help with work aiming to more accurately age skate and determine at what age they start to breed.