Have you ever had the good fortune to swim with a manta ray? Or watched underwater footage of these gentle giants? If so, you cannot help but be spellbound by these enchanting animals. But the sad reality is that global populations of manta rays are under threat, reducing the possibility for future generations to enjoy them as we have.
One of the greatest sources of anthropogenic mortality to manta rays is the expanding and targeted fishing pressure driven by international trade in their gill rakers. These modified gill structures – used by the animals to filter plankton from the water column – fetch high prices for use in Chinese medicine as a tonic that has no proven health benefits. With their large size, aggregative behaviour, predictable habitat use and lack of human avoidance, manta rays are sadly an easy and profitable target for exploitation.
Meanwhile, dive tourism involving this species is a lucrative and popular attraction giving the potential to generate higher and more long-lasting revenues for national economies than manta fishing.
Here at the Marine Megafauna Foundation we are not only focused on the local conservation issues that we face day-to-day close to our research base in the Inhambane Province, but we are also actively involved in international campaigns to promote the conservation of our flagship species. Dr. Andrea Marshall has previously been instrumental in listing both species of manta ray as ‘vulnerable to extinction’ on the IUCN redlist, and supporting efforts to add the giant manta ray to the Convention on Migratory Species Act. Currently Andrea and her team of researchers at MMF are using data from our long-running research programs to support a nomination of Appendix II listing for manta rays on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
As principal scientist for both the Marine Megafauna Foundation’s international manta ray program and Proyecto Mantas Ecuador, an Ecuadorian based non-profit research program, Andrea has worked throughout 2012 with Ecuador, Brazil and Columbia to produce a manta focused proposal for the upcoming CITES CoP in Bangkok, Thailand in March. An appendix II listing on CITES will afford these vulnerable species with elevated protection in most parts of their distribution, forcing participating range states to implement specific controls against unsustainable levels of harvest and trade, which currently threaten the survival of these beautiful creatures.
The three largest manta ray fisheries, accounting for an estimated 90% of all landings, exist in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. No fishing regulations or population monitoring currently exist in these over exploited areas. Annual landings of manta rays at one fishery in Indonesia declined 56% during the nine years up until 2010. MMF will shortly release a study showing an 87% decline in reef manta ray sightings in southern Mozambique over an eight-year study period from 2003 until 2010. It is clear something needs to change.
With that in mind, MMF PhD candidate Daan van Duinkerken joined a CITES workshop in Maputo last month alongside representatives from a number of southern and eastern African countries and NGOs to discuss the status of shark and ray fisheries in the Western Indian Ocean region and the elasmobranchs currently nominated for CITES listing at the CoP 16 in March. Together with Ania Budziak of the Project AWARE Foundation, Daan presented the current CITES Manta proposal. In the discussions afterwards, most attendees appeared to be in favour of listing.
During the CoP in March representatives from countries around the world will cast their vote to decide the fate of the manta ray. A two-thirds majority vote is required for a successful listing. Having been awarded with vulnerable to extinction status in 2011 and limited international protection under the Convention for Migratory Species Act in November 2011, it is clear that their inclusion on CITES is both necessary and timely. It is the first time that the two Manta species have been proposed for inclusion in the CITES Appendices. If successful manta rays will be the second genus of rays ever listed on the appendices of CITES.
Andrea and MMF’s conservation director, Janneman Conradie leave for Thailand in only a few short weeks. As the momentum around the manta ray’s conservation campaign builds, so does our anticipation for a successful outcome. With no time to loose, a CITES victory in March would shed a ray of hope for the giant mantas, an animal Andrea often likens to the panda of the ocean. While protecting these gentle giants may not be instrumental to the health of our oceans, safeguarding them will protect one of the ocean’s greatest treasures and ensures that ocean icons like these live on in more than just our memories.