Manta rays are so popular with divers and snorkelers that a single animal can 'earn' more than US$ 1 million over its lifetime for local eco-tourism, according to a new report issued by WildAid and Shark Savers. Despite their popularity and lucrative tourism value, the report provides shocking evidence that these graceful and gentle giants are rapidly disappearing due to extreme fishing pressure that is hardly known by the public or conservationists.
The report, entitled “Manta Ray of Hope: The Global Threat to Manta and Mobula Rays” provides the most far-reaching research ever conducted into both the intensive overfishing of mantas and mobulas as well as the trade in gill rakers that are driving mantas and mobulas to the point of population collapse. This destruction is happening for the gill raker market that is valued at an estimated $11 million annually, a fraction of the value of manta and mobula ray tourism, which is estimated to be over $100 million per year.
Manta and mobula ray populations are severely impacted by any kind of targeted fishing because they have extremely limited reproductive biology. These rays can take ten or more years to reach sexual maturity and typically produce only one pup every two to three years. In comparison, even the Great White shark which is listed under CITES Appendix II and widely considered to be one of the world’s most vulnerable species, may produce as many pups in one litter as a manta ray does over its entire lifetime. As a result, every area with active fisheries directed against manta and mobula rays reports devastating and rapid declines in populations of these rays. In certain regions, such as the Sea of Cortez, the oceanic manta ray (M. birostris) has largely disappeared.
The aggressive trade in gill rakers continues in several of the key range states for mobulids with the largest landings documented in Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia. The gills of manta and mobula rays are dried and boiled for preparation as a health tonic that is purported to treat a wide range of ailments. Yet the report’s researchers did not find the gill raker remedy listed in the official Traditional Chinese Medicine manual. However, that has not prevented its use as a pseudo-medicinal tonic, driven by direct marketing to consumers by importers in Guangzhou, China, the primary destination for this trade.
The report highlights what is known about the remarkable biology and ecology of manta and mobula rays, explains the extreme threats they face, describes the fisheries and trade that target these rays, and offers some solutions via alternative, non-consumptive uses for communities to profit from them sustainably. The information provided in the report will enable decision makers to move swiftly in enacting critical protections for manta and mobula rays. The team received support from the Silvercrest Foundation, Hrothgar Investments Ltd, and private donors, with additional guidance and data from many of the foremost manta researchers and scientists throughout the world.
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