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Thornback ray

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Thornback ray


The thornback ray is a common member of the skate family found in Cornish waters. It gets its name from numerous thorn like spines, which are modified ‘skin teeth’ on its upper surface and along the tail. Often marketed as 'skate wings' which is a catchall term for many species of local rays. Be sure to ask your fishmonger which species you are buying as some are less sustainable than others. 

Sustainability Overview

The thornback is a medium sized ray of the skate family. Like all skates Its biology makes it vulnerable to over fishing as it grows slowly and produces a small number of large eggs (in egg cases known as mermaids purses) each year. Stocks are not as high as they once were however popluations of Thornback ray are increasing across the Celtic seas but fishing effort is unknown, (ICES 2018). Overall ray catches are limited by a mixed species quota. There are issues with by catch in net fisheries for ray and with impact on the seabed with trawl fisheries. if you do want to eat skate or ray this is a good choice - make sure you ask for Thornback ray as many other skate and ray species are far less abundant. It is not recommended that you buy skate wings that are smaller than 22cm

A total of 23 tonnes of thornback rays were landed to Cornish ports in 2019, with a value of £27K (MMO data).

Updated December 2020

Sustainability ratings for this species

Demersal Trawl

Cornish boats landing to Cornish ports

Demersal trawls are large nets that are pulled through the water with the bottom edge of the net touching the seabed. At each edge the net is pulled open by metal ‘trawl doors’. Sometimes referred to as Otter trawling.

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Gill Netting

Cornish boats landing to Cornish ports

Gill nets are lightweight nets made of nylon (monofilament) fishing line that are anchored to the seabed and are used to catch fish by entangling the gills.

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Beam Trawling

Cornish boats landing to Cornish ports

Beam trawls are nets attached to a steel beam that holds the net open. The belly of the net is made of chains and the upper surface of the net is mesh. Beam trawlers pull two nets along the seabed simultaneously.

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How we rate fish

Cornwall Good Seafood Guide rates fish on sustainability using a scale of 1 to 5.

1, 2 and 3 are recommended, Fish to avoid are rated 5.

We use the system devised by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) so our scores are comparable with the scores produced by MCS for the UK and fisheries from all around the world. For more information on scoring click here.


Thornback rays are an inshore species of skate and are the most common species in Cornish waters. They are medium sized with females growing up to 130cm in length. Thornback rays are known to return to a specific location in order to breed or feed. They are a relatively slow growing species that matures late and produces a relatively small number of eggs each year. Females can grow to 118cm in length and 18kg in weight, while males can reach 98cm in length. Females mature between 60 and 85cm while males mature between 60 and 77cm (in both cases corresponding to an age of 5 to 10 years). The species has a maximum recorded age of 16 years.   

Stock Info

Stock status cannot be evaluated fully due to lack of data, this situation has improved considerably in the past few years and according to ICES  stocks in the Celtic sea are increasing with biomass index  up by 101% between 2011–2015 and 2016–2017. In the western English channel data is also limited but qualitative research suggests that stock is stable or increasing but fishing effort is unknown.
Catch per unit effort of Thornback ray in the Celtic sea  has increased according to Uk beam trawl survey data since 2007. (WGEF 2018) 
ICES advised in the Celtic seas catches can increase in 2019 and 2020 by 16% . In the western channel they advised  catches should stay the same as before. 
The thornback ray is assessed as "lower risk, near threatened" by IUCN - The World Conservation Union. 
MMO landings show that approx 40-20 tonnes of thornback ray are landed to Cornish ports each year. 


There is no specific management plan for thornback rays. Thornback rays are part of a mixed speices quota along with spotted, cuckoo, blonde and small-eyed rays in the Celtic Sea region. Quotas alone may not adequately protect these species as there are differences amongst species in their vulnerabilities to exploitation and a restrictive quota may lead to discarding. Instead seasonal and/or area closures, effort restrictions and measures to protect spawning grounds for example are recommended.
There is no minimum landing size for thornback rays in Cornwall but they reach 50% maturity at a length of 77cm. It is not recommended that you buy skate wings that are smaller than 22cm


Capture Info

Thornback ray are caught in beam trawls, demersal trawls and gill nets. 
These fishing methods all have issues with by catch of non-target species and impacts on the wider marine environment.  Owing to their shape and spiny skins it is hard to modify trawl nets and gill nets to allow juvenile skates and rays to escape. Fortunately they are relatively tough and as long as they are not  damaged in trawl nets to severely they can be released and stand a good chance of surviving. With shorter soak time gill nets again are less dangerous to juvenile rays which can be released. 


Chevolot, M., Hoarau, G., Rijnsdorp, A. D., Stam, W. T., and Olsen, J. L. 2006. Phylogeography and population structure of thornback rays (Raja clavata L., Rajidae). Molecular Ecology, 15: 3693–3705.
Ellis, J. R., Cruz-Martinez, A., Rackham, B. D., and Rogers, S. I. 2005. The distribution of chondrichthyan fishes around the British Isles and implications for conservation. Journal of Northwest Atlantic Fishery Science, 35: 195–213.
Gallagher, M. J., Nolan, C. P., and Jeal, F. 2005. Age, Growth and Maturity of the Commercial Ray Species from the Irish Sea. Journal of Northwest Atlantic Fishery Science, 35: 47–66. doi:10.2960/J.v35.m527.
Holden, M. J. 1975. The fecundity of Raja clavata in British waters. Journal du Conseil International pour l’Exploration de la Mer, 36: 110–118.
ICES. 2014a. Rays and skates in Divisions Celtic Sea and west of Scotland. In: Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2014. ICES Advice 2014, Book 5, Section
McCully, S. R., Scott, F., and Ellis, J. R. 2012. Lengths at maturity and conversion factors for skates (Rajidae) around the British Isles, with an analysis of data in the literature. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 69: 1812–1822.
McCully S.R. and Ellis J. R., 2014. Latest Scientific Advice on Skates and Rays. Seafish Skates and Rays Group Meeting Friends House, London 8 October 2013.
Ryland, J. S., and Ajayi, T. O. 1984. Growth and Population Dynamics of three Raja species (Batoidea) in Carmarthen Bay, British Isles. Journal du Conseil International pour l’Exploration de la Mer, 41: 111–120.
Shark Trust Thornback ray factsheet - Shark Trust; 2009. An Illustrated Compendium of Sharks, Skates, Rays and Chimaera. Chapter 1: The British Isles. Part 1: Skates and Rays


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