Ashley is catching cownose rays to tag them with an acoustic transmitter. With this information, she can passively track where these rays move throughout their different life stages using the network of listening stations established in her research area. Ashley works in Apalachicola Bay, a large and highly productive estuary in the northeast Gulf of Mexico that is also a biodiversity hotspot and federally-designated National Estuarine Research Reserve. Her study on the movement patterns of these rays, which are highly migratory and vulnerable to overfishing, comes at an important time after an unregulated fishery has led to the population’s collapse.
Fifteen years ago I visited the Georgia Aquarium on opening day and began using it as my window into the underwater world. Looking into the eyes of elusive species that I may never otherwise have a chance to see drew me into finding out more about them. While working in various aquariums, I have gained invaluable experience educating visitors of all ages about a diverse assemblage of marine species and have enjoyed innumerable exchanges about what we as humans can do to become conscious marine stewards and support efforts to protect the earth’s aquatic ecosystems. These conversations...
The main objective of this study is to define the spatial use habits of cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus) in Apalachicola Bay, Florida, in effort to provide the opportunity for effective species management while guiding efforts in local oyster restoration projects.
The Atlantic cownose ray is highly migratory and vulnerable to overexploitation. It has become difficult to manage this species due to limited behavioural data in the Gulf. The historical implication in the collapse of several fisheries led to an unregulated cownose ray fishery with immeasurable population effects. As oyster restoration is becoming heavily pursued, now is a crucial time to launch a ray movement study to clearly define the potential interaction occurring between rays and oysters.
Cownose rays are an extremely vulnerable species, due to the fact that it takes them 4-5 years to mature and then only give birth to one pup each year. These factors considered, it takes the population a long time to recover after instances of decline. While detailed movement studies of this species have been conducted along the eastern US coast, movement and space use data for Gulf of Mexico individuals are limited, contributing to the fact that no official stock assessment has ever been conducted. As key life-history traits differ between populations in the Atlantic and Gulf, it is likely that behavioural differences in space use and movement also exist. There are no existing data regarding seasonal residency or movement of cownose rays in Apalachicola Bay. However, it is likely that they are affected by fishing pressure from shrimp trawls during their seasonal window of bay use.
Cownose rays are considered mesopredators, primarily eating hard-shelled invertebrates such as clams and oysters, and are preyed upon by larger species of sharks. Reports of cownose rays depleting commercial oyster stocks in Chesapeake Bay, although challenged in the literature, led to the creation of a large and unregulated cownose ray fishery as pushed for by commercial fishermen, dubbed the ‘Save the Bay, Eat a Ray’ campaign. Lacking an official stock assessment, impacts from this fishery were immeasurable, which is particularly jeopardizing for a species so vulnerable to overexploitation. Crucial data gaps regarding spatial use and migratory habits are dangerous to let linger, especially in highly migratory mesopredators that are interacting with several different ecological habitats over different life stages.
Demian’s team is developing tools that help border control officers identify illegal shark products. His project is sifting through ‘rhino ray’ DNA sequences looking for differences in code between the guitarfishes, giant guitarfishes and wedgefishes nicknamed for their pointy snouts (and Endangered status). Months of testing will help ensure only rhino ray DNA is targeted before the team flies to Hong Kong to help officials use a portable DNA tester. This project will add to the arsenal currently being used to identify illegal shark fins moving across borders, and help stop the trafficking of ‘rhino ray’ fins.
Aristide created a citizen science platform and mobile app for fishers across Cameroon’s 400 km coastline to record sightings of sharks, rays and marine life. These photos are uploaded to iNaturalist where they are identified and will serve to create Cameroon’s first elasmobranch atlas. Together with his team, Aristide ensures data are being uploaded, visits fish landing sites to assess bycatch and measure sharks, and scours the beaches to check for strandings and sea turtle nests. He collects tissue samples of threatened species in these visits that can give more insights into the diversity, population size and structure of vulnerable sharks.
Ali is collaborating with researchers across North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean to develop support tools for guitarfish conservation. As an advocate, much of her work is completed behind a computer and locked in meetings, but her goal is to help bring awareness to the threatened status of guitarfish in the Mediterranean. The current Director of Conservation for the Shark Trust, Ali represents a large number of regional partners to engage with governments, develop new resources and coordinate guitarfish conservation activities.