Last month we came across a strange-looking creature while walking the beach with the dogs. About 30″ in length, this unusual fish was flat with pancake sized flaps on each side. It had a tail that stuck up at 90*. I guessed that wasn’t a natural angle but more likely frozen in place from the considerable wind chill.
I had a pretty good idea it was a skate but wanted to know what species (there are dozens). A helpful friend – Andrew Hebda, retired curator for the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History – is my go-to guy for creature IDs. From the photos, he pinned it as a young adult female Winter Skate (Raja ocellata).
Skates resemble a stingray but have a thicker tail without stinging barbs. However winter skates do have thorns in various places on their body.
They can grow to about 41 inches in length and up to 15 pounds in weight and spend most of their time on the ocean floor. Preferred prey includes polychaetes, amphipods, isopods, bivalves, fish, crustaceans and squid. Fishermen call the larger skates “barn doors.”
According to a 2017 fisheries stock assessment, winter skates are not subject to overfishing. One fisherman declared he had 600 lbs. of them aboard as bait when I posted the photo to the LFA 33 & 34 Facebook group.
Sometimes their wings are stamped or punched out in a circular shape and sold as “poor boy scallops.” A fishermen shared this sage advice: “If the meat grain goes up and down they’re real scallops, if it’s left to right, it’s skate wings.”
An unusual find while beachcombing could be the rare sighting of a “Mermaid’s Purse.” These tough leathery pouches protect a developing shark or skate embryo.