The recent CITES listing for manta rays and CMS listing for both manta and mobula rays were a substantial boost for the conservation of these species, but a major challenge remains: manta and mobula rays are notoriously difficult to identify. An ID guide produced by The Manta Trust will help to make accurate identification possible – and the listings, in conjunction with other conservation measures, effective. Daniel Fernando explains how.
Over the past few years, significant advances have been made in helping to protect sharks and mobulid rays and in improving the conservation of these marine animals. To a large extent, the advances were made possible by increased awareness of the threats to these vulnerable species from by-catch and from target fisheries, which are driven by the international trade for shark fins and mobulid gill plates. This awareness has, in turn, been generated through the knowledge gained from key data relating to the life-history characteristics of these species, such as age at maturity, rates of reproduction, longevity and so on. In order to obtain such key baseline data, scientific researchers and citizen scientists alike must be able to identify specimens down to species level – and they must do so clearly and accurately, so that the data collected do not produce results that misrepresent the species in question. This is the premise for the creation of the Manta Trust’s mobulid identification guide, which will be released within the next few months.
In March 2013, at a meeting in Bangkok, the Manta Trust and colleagues from several international NGOs witnessed the successful listing of manta rays under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This precautionary approach adopted by the international community clearly signalled that the unregulated trade of manta gill plates from unsustainable stocks would no longer be tolerated – and it was a very welcome announcement! However, this was just the first step in the process.
Following the announcement, regional workshops were established to help researchers in the field and customs officials at international borders to identify the different manta ray and other ray species, and also their dried gill plates (the gill plates are the most valuable part of the ray due to their use as a supposed remedy in Chinese medicine). Preliminary versions of the mobulid identification guide and gill plate identification guide, created by co-author Guy Stevens at the Manta Trust, played a large part in the training workshops. These workshops are a vital step in the implementation of CITES listings, as they develop capacity for national management and scientific authorities to conform to data standards that are essential for demonstrating that specimens originate from a sustainable population and therefore can continue to be traded internationally, albeit under a stringent permit system. Countries unable to conform to the standards would have to adopt strict measures to restrict trade and improve the local management of fish stocks.
Having started out in the Maldives, the Manta Trust is now active in about 16 countries worldwide promoting the conservation of manta and devil rays and their habitat through research, awareness and education. Three of its current major operations are the Global Mobulid ID Project, which aims to provide a taxonomic, morphological and genetic identification guide to manta and devil rays; the collection of data about ray landings in India, which will inform conservation management in that country; and the Indonesian Manta Project, which works to promote an appreciation of manta and devil rays among local people.