Because I grew up on a beach in Senegal, Africa, some of my first memories are of falling asleep to the sound of the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. It was the most beautiful and soothing sound and I am convinced that my love for the ocean began right there. Yet it took me quite some time, and a couple of fun detours in my life, until I stumbled back into the ocean to do a scuba-diving course and realised that this was what I had been looking for. I was back where I belonged. Completing my degree in marine biology on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia felt like Christmas and birthday every day; I was fascinated. Upon graduating, I thought that only one thing could make life better and that would be to study the most incredible animals in the ocean: manta rays. I’ve now been working for the Manta Trust for almost three years, researching and protecting these majestic creatures, and I still want to pinch myself to believe it’s true.
The Manta Trust is a global network of projects and collaborations in more than 20 countries. A large proportion of our work is carried out in South and South-East Asia, where the biggest fishery for mobulid (manta and mobula) rays occurs. Targeted mobulid fishing has expanded considerably over the past decade because the rays’ gill plates, used to filter plankton from the water, are increasingly sought after as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. The growing demand for gill plates and the international trade in them have had a devastating effect, resulting in local population declines of up to 90%. By-catch, or incidental catch, is another challenge, as about 14,000 rays are caught in tuna purse-seine fisheries every year. Mobulid rays take a long time to reach maturity and produce few offspring in their lifetime, so populations cannot recover when faced with high fishing pressure.
The Manta Trust’s projects also span the Pacific and Indian oceans and are located in a number of places in Latin America, where we work to support sustainable manta tourism and study the behaviour and life history of mantas, in addition to carrying out fishery research. Did you know that manta tourism contributes US$140-million to the global economy every year? This means not only that these species are fascinating in themselves, but also that manta tourism can provide local communities with a sustainable alternative to fishing.
As the head of conservation strategy for the Manta Trust, I work closely with project leaders on the ground to achieve our research, outreach and conservation objectives. I am particularly fascinated by mobulas, or devil rays, because so little is known about them. They face the same threats as mantas, their larger cousins, but do not receive an equal level of protection. The monitoring of fisheries is sparse and the data are often poor, partly because it is so tricky to identify the different species. Understanding the scale and impact of mobula fisheries, communicating this data and advocating for enhanced protection, such as listing mobula rays on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), is really important so that sustainable regulations for mobulid trade and fisheries can be established before it is too late. My work includes informing and educating decision-makers, governments and the general public about threats to these species, producing digital and printed resource materials to raise their profile and conducting training on the identification of species and gill plate to provide customs and fisheries officials with the skills to monitor trade and support enforcement measures. I also participate in key conferences to advocate for national and international protection. And whenever I can, I get back into the water to see the mantas and little devils and to remind myself why it is so worthwhile to protect them.