Giant devil rays are not a popular target for Gaza’s fishers, yet when hundreds of the mobulids mysteriously appeared within the limited range of their nets, they rushed to land them. The strange phenomenon of the rays’ sudden arrival puzzled marine researcher Mohammed Abudaya and he set out to discover what was behind it – and learn more about the political background to the fishermen’s response.
In the last few days of February 2013, news pages around the world depicted gory scenes on beaches along the Gaza Strip. Unlike the usual stories from the beleaguered Palestinian territory, these images were not political. Rather, they showed a dimly lit beach littered with hundreds of massive, flattish carcasses of what might easily be mistaken for manta rays. In a video published by the International Business Times (IBT), boats deep in the water and heavily laden with large, black fish can be seen approaching the shore.
Throughout the dark hours of the morning and into the first few hours of daylight, fishermen worked in pairs to drag the hefty animals off the boats and onto the sand, where they laid them out in rows: a macabre jigsaw of triangular carcasses stretching to the far end of the beach. As day broke, horse-drawn carts were brought down to the shore. Tons of meat were loaded into them and ferried to markets throughout Gaza to be sold for about US$2 per kilogram.
The gruesome images and footage went viral and sensation-seeking journalism sent conflicting reports of the landings around the world. The lives of fishermen are among the hardest in Palestine and in the video published by the IBT the men can be heard thanking God for their good fortune. Many local publications referred to the event as ‘a gift from God’ – a phrase misinterpreted by international media houses, which stated that the hundreds of rays had ‘washed ashore’ over the course of two days and suggested that a mass stranding had taken place.
For the next few days possible reasons for the incident were debated in comment forums and on social media around the world – and one local television report caught the attention of a certain Dr Mohammed Abudaya in Palestine. A marine and coastal management lecturer and researcher at the Islamic University of Gaza and Al-Azhar University, Mohammed became determined to understand the science behind how more than 500 endangered rays had been caught and killed in just a few days on Palestinian shores. He was contacted by Daniel Fernando of the Manta Trust, who offered support and encouraged him to get in touch with the Save Our Seas Foundation to apply for funding.
The species that was landed, the giant devil ray Mobula mobular, is the largest in its genus and the only one found in the Mediterranean Sea. It has been classified as Endangered by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because of its low reproductive capacity, limited range and high propensity for being taken as by-catch. In the past, according to Gazan fishermen, these rays were often present in Palestinian waters around March, but until the massive haul in 2013 they had not been seen for six years.
Conservation is never an easy task, but it’s even harder in a battleground. Mohammed works with fishing communities in Gaza to find out how to protect mobula rays during their visits to the east Mediterranean Sea.