Things are Looking Up: Sharks and Manta Rays

by Lucy Hagger

My posts have been pretty depressing recently so I thought I’d look for something slightly more positive to write about. It is relatively difficult to find positive stories when it comes to the state of our world’s wildlife, but I found some happiness in sharks and manta rays.

A Slightly Depressing Start…

The CITES conference that has taken place over the last couple weeks has featured quite a lot in some of my more recent posts. It was where the proposals for the legal trade of rhino horn and polar bear hunting ban were rejected. Generally I have had quite a negative slant on the outcomes of the conference so here comes a more positive outcome.

Sharks and manta rays are facing increasing levels of exploitation. Once again there is increasing demand for them in Asia which is only worsening due to the increasing wealth in this continent. China’s insatiable demand for shark fin for their soup and use of manta ray gill rakers for medicinal properties is tempting many people into the poaching industry.

The sharks and rays are common in coastal regions where many poor people live. The poaching provides a stable income on which many people rely on. 1kg of shark fin can be sold for over $100 on the black market, which is a large amount of money for many of these poachers.

The increasing demand for these products with Asia’s increasing wealth is tempting more people into poaching, but is having a huge detriment on the shark and ray populations. Inhambane is a coastal region of Mozambique and has seen an 87% decrease in shark numbers in the last 10 years alone. This region’s thriving sea life brought in tourists from all over the world, as people could see 7-8 sharks on one dive. Now however, it is a very different story. The chances of seeing even one shark are pretty poor and this has led to a huge decrease in the number of tourists being attracted to the area.

Some Good News I Promise…

This is the case in many regions where these sharks and rays used to thrive. Local economies have suffered and more and more people are turning to more environmentally damaging practices like poaching. It has been a vicious cycle and this has now been internationally recognized by CITES.

At the conference 2/3 of the CITES parties had to vote in favour of the proposal to protect shark and manta ray species. Success was seen, with 5 shark species and 2 manta ray species being granted protection under CITES. Some of these chosen few include the oceanic white tip shark, porbeagle sharks and 3 species of hammerhead sharks.

This is a great step in the right direction for conservation of these animals. The trading of these animals is a big problem but this action has been taken at a good time. It should hopefully ensure their protection in the future by targeting protection more effectively. With demand increasing, well thought out conservation should help to safe guard these animals from the ever increasing threats.

Research Progress for Rays and Sharks

To ensure effective conservation attempts more information is going to be needed. Research into the current population sizes and assessment of the market data would be a good start, and the good news is, this is already underway.

A team from Equipe Cousteau and The Deep have just finished the first phase of their shark and ray conservation project. The expedition was led by Nigel Hussey and Steven Kessel, both marine biologists from the University of Windsor and members of the Ocean Tracking Network.

The work was carried out at Dungonab Bay marine park in the Sudanese Red Sea. With the help of local conservation teams and fishermen, the team managed to successfully tag 22 manta rays with acoustic, satellite and GPS tags. This is the first time the manta rays have been tagged in such a way and is a huge step in increasing our knowledge of these amazing creatures. The acoustics will be monitored and the GPS tags will allow tracking of these rays enabling us to monitor their movements.

This will provide precious data about the rays which can hopefully work to enable better application of conservation measures especially on the back of the new CITES protection.

Genetic work has already found that the majority of the manta rays may in fact be the giant manta ray species rather than the coastal manta ray species which was previously believed. So already, this research is improving population data for these quite poorly researched animals.

They next phase of the research will be focusing efforts on sharks and hopefully equally promising results will be seen.

I feel that this is a rare glimmer of hope in an otherwise depressing world of conservation failures and needs. Fingers crossed more cases like this will begin to receive more support and media coverage to capture increased public interest. The state of the world’s wildlife is pretty tattered, but cases like this are helping to patch up some of this mess. There is no miracle cure for the state of the Earth, but a gradual and widespread recovery process is going to be needed to make the difference.

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