British coastal waters are home to quite a variety of rays with different shapes, shades and spines. Not knowing the difference between them can be a costly – and even painful – experience. Fortunately, the small-eyed ray is one of the easier species to recognize.
The small-eyed ray’s name stems from its main identifying feature — its eyes are much smaller than those of other rays. However, with all rays it’s never entirely safe to rely on one recognition feature. The colour of the small-eyed species is very distinctive which gives rise to its other name — the painted ray.
Its back is greyish to medium brown, spattered with creamy blotches, and faint creamy bands run parallel to the edges of the wings. This ray also has skin prickles on the front half of its flattened body disc, and a series of closely packed spines, each bent at a right angle, runs down the middle of the fish’s back.
The small-eyed ray is one of the commoner rays in British coastal waters. It moves to inshore waters — into depths of about 20m (66ft) — in the spring before moving down to about 100m (330ft) as winter approaches.
It is very particular about the type of sea bed it prefers. Its prime haunts are sandy grounds just offshore and the waters of small, clean outer estuaries. The choice of this type of sea bed appears to be very deliberate since other rays are much rarer in these areas.
Small-eyed rays breed in the summer. The eggs are laid in sacs 10cm (4in) long and 7cm (21/2in) wide with four horns, one at each corner. Two are long and thin while the opposite pair are short and curved. The young hatch after seven months.
Young rays feed on small crustaceans -sand-hoppers, young shrimps and small crabs. As they grow they shift to eating small fish, taking virtually any of the bottom dwelling fishes, though sandeels are perhaps their most important food. Gobies, dragonets, gurnards, and small flatfishes all appear in their diet, as well as small squid and cuttlefish.
As with many other rays, the small-eyed ray’s broad, flat body means that – from an early age – it is vulnerable to capture in trawling nets. It is caught extensively by commercial fishing vessels, going to swell the total number of ‘skate’ landed by inshore boats.
The ray’s fairly slow growth means many young are taken before they reach breeding age. This, along with the small number of eggs produced, makes it in special need of conservation. This is a fact now recognized by many anglers who make the effort to release their catch after weighing.