While the oceans of our planet cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, we still know so little about what goes on beneath the waves. There are vast areas, great depths and even hundreds or perhaps thousands of species that we still barely understand. Manta rays can certainly be classed as a species we still have so much to learn about and that is why in January 2012, The Manta Trust came into being; a UK registered charity aiming to improve our understanding of these animals and promote their long-term conservation.
The Manta Trust is a growing group of scientists, educators, photographers, film-makers, conservationists and advocacy experts who have joined forces to co-ordinate global research and conservation efforts for both manta rays and their close cousin’s, the mobula rays.
These rays are among the most charismatic creatures that inhabit our oceans. With the largest brain of all fish, their intelligence and curiosity is often compared to that of a large mammal, making encounters with them a truly unforgettable experience.
However, despite their popularity with divers and snorkelers many aspects of these creature’s lives remain a mystery, with only snippets of their life history currently understood. More worryingly, in recent years a targeted fishery for these animals has developed, causing devastating declines in global manta ray populations.
The Manta Trust brings together a number of research projects from around the globe. By conducting long-term, robust studies into manta populations in these varying locations, we aim to build the solid foundations upon which governments, NGOs and conservationists can make informed and effective decisions to ensure the long term survival of these animals and their habitat. By coupling this research with educational programmes and raising awareness, we hope to be able to make a lasting difference to the future of our oceans.
What are manta rays?
Manta and mobula rays are cartilaginous elasmobranch fishes. Like other rays this means they are a close relative of the shark. However, unlike most rays which spend at least a portion of their lives hugging the seabed, mobulids live pelagic existences – meaning they spend their time swimming in open water.
They’re also completely harmless to humans, feeding on zooplankton, the often microscopic animals which live in the water column and are the base of many ocean food chains. This food source means that these amazing rays are at the mercy of the oceans, often migrating thousands of kilometres to track down their next meal!
Manta rays are also the largest rays in the world. There are two species of manta, the reef mantas and the larger oceanic mantas that grow to over 7m diameter from wingtip to wingtip.
We believe manta rays to be incredibly long lived, probably living to at least 50 years old or possibly longer! This characteristic, coupled with the fact that they mature late, reproduce infrequently and give birth usually to a single pup at a time, make them very vulnerable to exploitation by fisheries.
Threats to Mantas
Manta and mobula rays are fished for their gill plates, the intricate apparatus which helps them to both breathe underwater and to strain their microscopic planktonic food from the water.
This fishery is quite a recent development, with the gill plates being sold in Asian markets where they are prepared as a tonic to treat a variety of ailments.
Due to the vulnerable nature of these animals this has the potential to have catastrophic implications for their fragile populations. In fact populations in some areas have already seen declines of up to 86% due to fisheries.
How do we help?
One of the main aims of the Manta Trust is to unite and co-ordinate work being undertaken with these rays in all corners of the globe. So far we are working in 16 countries! By co-ordinating our research in this way the hope is that we can share in each other’s successes (and failures), learning what works and what doesn’t, ultimately achieving global successes for these species.
We know that good conservation requires a holistic approach. Therefore the Manta Trust researchers and volunteers work closely with tourists, local communities, businesses and governments to ensure the preservation of these amazing animals through a combination of good science, education, community based initiatives and government legislation. As the scope of the Trust’s work continues to grow our goal is to keep expanding these efforts globally.
In March 2013, the Manta Trust was part of a consortium of NGOs behind the successful listing of both species of manta ray on Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). This listing means trade in manta ray parts between the 178 signatory nations will be closely controlled and restricted when this legislation comes into force in September 2014.
This is a huge victory, however much still needs to be achieved for these animals until this legislation comes into force, especially to aid those in the involved fishing industry to transition to more sustainable futures.
How can you help The Manta Trust?
One of the best ways you can help is to swim with mantas! By showing governments that manta-based tourism is important and that it provides a sustainable long term industry in which people can earn a living whilst co-existing with these animals, we will be taking positive steps towards long-term solutions for these rays.
If you’ve been lucky enough to swim with mantas why not send us your pictures? Each manta is uniquely identifiable by the pattern of spots on their ventral (belly) surface. We are collating manta images from around the world as part of our global IDtheManta database.
Spreading the word of what we do is also hugely important following our work on our blog, website, Facebook and Twitter pages and sharing what we do with your friends is also an amazing way to spread the manta message! We also offer several volunteer placements each year.
The Manta Trust and Mission Blue
Becoming a Mission Blue partner The Manta Trust hopes to move a few steps closer to securing our own vision – “A sustainable future for the oceans where manta rays thrive in healthy, diverse marine ecosystems” – using research, awareness and education as our tools. Working as part of the Mission Blue team we hope to play our part in helping Dr. Earle’s wish to come true, helping to create a global network of Marine Protected Areas, flourishing environments that will form the seed of tomorrow’s healthy ocean.
Feature Photo: Guy Stevens/Manta Trust