Skate on thin ice

Unless we take action, sharks and skates could become extinct in British waters. Peter Marren meets a fearless champion of the fearsome fish
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The Independent Online

Sometimes you wonder what you are really eating. I am very fond of skate, drooling over mere memories of pan-fried skate wings, their meat clinging to fans of cartilage and drenched in capers and buerre noir.

Sometimes you wonder what you are really eating. I am very fond of skate, drooling over mere memories of pan-fried skate wings, their meat clinging to fans of cartilage and drenched in capers and buerre noir.

But there are skate and skate. The real thing is the now inappropriately named common skate, Dipturus batis, just one species in a class of cartilaginous fish that include all sorts of sharks and rays - flat, rhombic-shaped fish that live on the seabed and swim using their "wings". Skate on a plate, however, can be any old ray. If you have eaten "skate" recently, you have probably been tucking into thornback ray - and why not? It tastes just as good.

The original skate is a ray in a bad way. Once, it was so common that one in every three rays caught was a skate. Nowadays it is rarely caught at all in British waters; it has been fished, frozen and eaten to near extinction. It is already listed as critically endangered and the Government is being urged to make it a protected species.

Every five years, the Government conducts a review of protected wild species. Next month, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will announce the latest casualties of an ever-changing environment. They include the common skate, for which full protection has been urged on the grounds of a steeply falling catch-rate and imminent likelihood of extinction in British waters. Protection would mean that anyone catching a skate would have to return it to the sea alive and unharmed. Just as importantly, official protection tends to attract funding for research and conservation. Unfortunately, this protection is confined to inshore waters, within the six-mile limit.

The skate's partner in misfortune is the angel shark, also known as the monkfish. But don't imagine you have eaten monkfish either. The species that comes under that moniker in the supermarket is the unrelated anglerfish, a beast so ugly that its outsized head is removed before it goes anywhere near a plate. The bit we eat is the headless body, confusingly known as the "tail". Monkfish tails are not tails, but then they are not monkfish either.

The real monkfish, whose shape is rather well-rendered in its Latin name Squatina squatina, is a large, flattish fish, technically a shark though it looks more like a ray. It is so named because of a fancied resemblance to a monk in a grey cowl, formed by the fish's two enormous leathery pectoral fins. Imagine a smallish shark with an outsized, toad-like head and a wide, sad-looking mouth.

Its flavour is not prized so has not been fished for specifically, but the angel shark is nevertheless going the way of the skate, staring glumly into oblivion. Very few have been caught in British waters recently, which almost certainly means that there are few left to catch. A typical skate or angel shark that does survive is likely to have been caught several times before reaching maturity - which is 10 years for the skate and longer for the angel shark. Modern trawling methods are simply too efficient to allow these fish room to hide for years on end. To put it another way, these fish will live long enough to breed only if someone is kind enough to release them unharmed. Squatina squatina is desperately in need of a guardian angel.

Sarah Fowler is a trustee and founder of the Shark Trust, set up in 1997, which promotes the study and conservation of sharks, skates and rays. She is also joint author of the first comprehensive field guide to the sharks of the world, published last month.

Fowler is a roving ambassador for sharks, doing her best to persuade and pressure governments and fisheries around the world to bring an element of management into the way sharks are treated. She has swum with sharks around the globe, and talks of them with passion, admiring their appearance, predatory intelligence and extraordinary ability to home in on food with the accuracy of a stealth fighter.

Fowler has never had a moment's trouble with hungry sharks in nearly 30 years of diving. Occasionally, she admits, one might have a little nibble, but so gently as to barely break the skin. Most will only feel you, she says. They are not going to eat you. Unfortunately, on the few occasions when a shark makes a mistake and does bite a human, it makes headlines worldwide. But more people are bitten by squirrels than sharks.

Without protection, Fowler believes, the common skate and angel shark will disappear from British waters. Is it not the ultimate expression of failure, she says, to drive to extinction an animal with "common" in its name? She tells the story of the last big recreational skate fishery, at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland, which experienced, as shark fisheries tend to, a boom and bust: "Catch them while you can!" was the cry. The Lough finally became an official Marine Nature Reserve but only after there were no skate left to enjoy their new-won protection. Not a single one, as far as researchers can tell.

Since no one fishes for common skate and angel shark any more, there is unlikely to be much protest against their full protection. A bigger problem concerns identification. The angel shark is unmistakable. Skate can be distinguished from other rays by their longer snouts, but it takes some knowledge to tell one kind of skate from another. The solution, in the Shark Trust's view, is to protect all skate. There are three other types of skate in British waters: white, black and long-nosed skates (the later has a prodigious snout even by skate standards). Technically, there are no problems with protecting all four skates: they are all rare and they could all do with a break. The Government is considering extending legal protection to the five ray species.

What would protection mean in practice? On the face of it, not a great deal. The law cannot prevent trawlers from catching protected fish by accident. And those who do, aware of skate's fate, normally release them. The biggest UK ray fishery, in South Wales, has a policy of releasing small rays, after research showed that the stock was being depleted.

Unfortunately, beyond the six-mile boundary of inshore waters, Britain cannot take unilateral action; protection is in the hands of the EU, whose targets for skate are pegged, not to existing stocks, but to catch levels from a time when North Sea skates and rays were comparatively common.

Fowler believes the catch rate should be lowered to nearly zero in the short term, as part of a broader "shark plan" in which all shark and ray fisheries are managed sustainably and intelligently. But that goal could be a long way off.

Skates and angel sharks have at least one thing in their favour: they are tough old fish, and, like sharks, don't have a swim bladder, which means that they are likely to survive if they are caught accidentally and spilled out onto the ship's deck or hold. Fishermen should be issued with instructions on how to handle large angel sharks. What would happen if you caught hold of the wrong end of the fish? "It would bite, of course," says Fowler.

Legal protection would also raise awareness, she says. Sharks are being overfished worldwide. Too few are reaching maturity and too many ending up in shark's fin soup or shark-skin hand-bags. For Britain to protect its dwindling numbers would at least set a good example, and to do something for the skate and angel shark is to highlight the plight of all sharks.

If we don't do something soon, says Fowler, our monkfish will be nothing but angels.

'Field Guide: Sharks of the World', by Leonard Compagno, Sarah Fowler and Marc Dando, £25.

For more information about The Shark Trust see www.sharktrust.org

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