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What We're Doing to Learn More About Skates

Little skate.  Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Closeup of a rosette skate's eye.  Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Rosette skate.  Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Skates are an ancient form of fish.  They first appeared in the fossil record 150 million years ago.  They are like sharks in that they have no bones in their bodies, but they differ in that their bodies are flat top to bottom. Their large pectoral fins, often called “wings,” are used to help them swim and control direction. There are 280 species of skates worldwide.

There is a lot we don’t know about skates. With the help of commercial fishermen, we will be able to collect more information on these ancient creatures. NOAA Fisheries developed a new skate identification guide, which will make it easier for fishermen and seafood dealers to identify different skate species so we can better manage their populations. The goal is to keep populations healthy and support successful commercial fisheries.

In the northwest Atlantic, commercial fisheries catch seven skate species: winter; little; barndoor; thorny; smooth; clearnose; and rosette. Currently, only thorny skate is overfished (i.e., abundance is at low levels). Thorny and winter skates are both classified as subject to overfishing (fishing pressure is too high to be sustainable).  Due to the poor condition of the thorny skate population harvesting of this species is now prohibited.

The most sought after of these species is the little skate, which is used for bait in other commercial fisheries such as lobster. The bait fishery is based principally in Point Judith and Tiverton, RI.  However, fishermen from other ports in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland also harvest skates for bait.  

When fishing for groundfish or other species, many commercial fishing vessels also catch skate incidentally.  In these cases, usually just the wings from larger winter skates are harvested for sale.  Skate wings are processed in several states along the US east coast including Massachusetts, Rhode Island Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland.  They are typically shipped as food to the European Market.

Managing Skate Fisheries

NOAA Fisheries recently received recommendations on skate management from the New England Fishery Management Council, a multi-stakeholder body that develops management measures for all federally managed fish species.  Based on those recommendations, NOAA Fisheries has proposed and is seeking comment on the following measures (Framework 2):

Did you know?
  • Skates and rays are eaten throughout the world. They are not as popular in the United States for food but are used to make fertilizer and fish meal.
  • While the majority of skates range in length from less than 2 feet long, some like the common skate can grow to be nearly 8 feet in length Skates live primarily on the seafloor.  Their varying brown/grey/green coloration enables them to blend in with different ocean bottoms to hide from unsuspecting prey and unwelcome predators. 
  • Skates are slow moving.  They cruise the seafloor in search of food including worms, clams, snails, shrimp, fish, and other small animals.
  • The skate’s mouth is found on the underside of its body.
  • The surface of a skate’s skin is generally covered with small spines, but some skates have smooth skin.
  • Young skates hatch from eggs contained in leathery, protective capsules which are commonly called “mermaid’s purses.”
  • The winter skate is not reproductively mature until age 11, and may live up to 20 years.
  • Skates are poorly studied compared to their relatives, the sharks and rays.  More research is needed.