MERMAID’S purse is the romantic name given to the puffed-out egg cases of skate that used to be stranded on the beach by the retreating tides. Decades ago, they were commonplace on the south coast—brittle, black pods with horns (top right). I can’t remember when I last saw one.
Although there was a time when this remarkable, rhombic-shaped fish was abundant and chalked up on the slate of every fish shop’s daily catch, the ‘common’ skate is now anything but. Officially classified as Critically Endangered, it has a real risk of extinction. What happened? Massive overfishing occurred in the 20th century, for its flavourful ‘wings’, and many died as bycatch in trawled fishing for other species. Miles of their seabed habitats have been destroyed, increasing mortality in an animal that takes 11 years to mature.
Sometimes called the ‘manta ray of the North’, an unhindered skate may achieve a wingspan of 9ft and can live for 50–100 years. Although its underside looks comically human, the ‘eyes’ above its luscious lips are nostrils, the actual eyes being on the top surface. Their last British stronghold is off north-west Scotland, where remaining populations still suffer stress and damage from anglers. Present EU law makes it illegal to fish skate commercially or to keep it on board if landed accidentally. KBH
Illustration by Bill Donohoe