Big skate (Raja binoculata)

Synonyms: Dipturus binoculata
GenusRaja (1)
SizeAverage length: 0.9 – 1.8 m (2)
Maximum total length: 2.4 m (2)
Maximum weight: 91 kg (3)

The big skate is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Aptly named, the big skate (Raja binoculata) is the largest skate in North American waters (4). As with all skates, the body is flattened and disc-shaped, with the pectoral fins broadly expanded and joined to the head and body (5). In this species, the tip of the snout and tips of the pectoral fins are acutely pointed, forming a diamond-shaped disc (4) (5). The tail is distinctly demarcated from the disc, relatively narrow, and about as long as body length (5). An irregular row of approximately 33 thorns run from the end of the back, down the tail to the first of two dorsal fins. The small eyes are positioned on the upper surface relatively far back, while the mouth appears on the underside, along with the five gill slits (4). Mottled colouration on the back includes browns, reddish-browns, dark greys and blacks, with occasional small pale spots and scattered dark blotches (4), while the underside is white (6). The species’ name ‘binoculata’ means two eyes, referring to the prominent dark ocellus (eye-like spot) on the upper surface of each pectoral fin (4). Biologists believe this illusion of eyes may confuse potential predators by making the skate appear much larger than it is (4) (7).

The big skate is found in temperate waters of the north-eastern Pacific Ocean from Alaska to central Baja, California (1) (5). This range includes the eastern Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, west to Unalaska Island and South to Baja, California (U.S.) near Cedros Island (4).

Occurring along the coast in estuaries, bays and over the continental shelf. Commonly found on sandy and muddy bottoms to depths of 120 metres (2) (4). The big skate is usually seen lying on the bottom partially covered with bottom sediments, with eyes protruding above the remainder of the body and sediments (4) (5) (7).

Little is known about the big skate’s mating behaviour but, like other skates, it is oviparous, or egg-laying, but it has unusually large egg capsules. Among skates, only the big skate and the closely related Raja pulchra have more than one egg per egg capsule. The egg capsules of the big skate are laid in pairs and usually contain three to four eggs, although up to seven have been recorded. Hatchlings are released from the egg capsule about nine months after being laid by the female. Males reach sexual maturity at approximately seven to eight years, females at 12 to 13 (4).

The big skate feeds on marine invertebrates such as shrimps, worms and clams, as well as on crustaceans and fish (3) (4). The positioning of the mouth on the underside of the body is perfect for sucking up animals hiding in the sand (4).

The big skate is fished for its fins, which are marketed fresh and frozen (3), but is only of minor importance to commercial fisheries (4). However, this species is also taken incidentally as bycatch, primarily by bottom trawlers in the waters off the coast of California (U.S). Indeed, during the 1990s, the skate catch off the coast of California increased nearly ten-fold, partly targeted and partly taken as bycatch by trawl fisheries that supplement their income by marketing incidentally caught skates and rays (4). Data are currently inadequate to determine the precise impact fisheries are having on big skate populations, but as one of the larger, slow maturing species with a low reproductive rate, this skate is potentially vulnerable to population collapses caused by over-fishing (1).

Presently, the big skate is classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List, and no direct conservation measures are currently in place for the species (1). However, more population data and close monitoring of this species are required to accurately assess the impact fisheries are having on its abundance and distribution.

For further information on the big skate:

For further information on the conservation of sharks and rays: 

Authenticated (01/03/2006) by John McEachran, Professor in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at Texas A and M University.

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
  2. (December, 2005)
  3. FishBase (December, 2005)
  4. Florida Museum of Natural History (December, 2005)
  5. McEachran, J. (2006) Pers. comm.
  6. eNature: National Wildlife Federation (December, 2005)
  7. Monterey Bay Aquarium (December, 2005)