Effective protection of an animal relies to a large extent upon how much we know about it. The recent separation of the genus Manta into two distinct species allows scientists and governments to make more relevant management decisions based upon their differing lifestyle histories.
For example, whilst regional or national fishing bans might completely protect a population of resident reef manta rays, similar action in an area where the more transient oceanic mantas are seen might only provide a short-term refuge in one area of this species’ habitual range.
Effective protective measures for a species can therefore be applied at local, regional and/or international levels, and a number of laws, conventions and organisations exist to help facilitate such actions. This page details some of the legal measures already in place to help protect these rays throughout their range, as well as what more needs to be done…
World Conservation Union; IUCN Red Listing
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species is widely recognised as ‘the most comprehensive global approach for evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species’. By measuring a species against a number of criteria such as species range, habitat, population and population trends, threats and conservation actions, the IUCN’s Red List assessment process is able to provide a consistent measure of how threatened a species is compared to all other species, as well as, upon re-evaluation, providing a measure of change in population trends. Red List assessments are compiled by scientists and partner organisations who are experts in their field. These listings and assessments play an important role in guiding conservation activities of governments, NGOs and scientific institutions.
The genus Manta was re-assessed for the IUCN Red List in 2011 to take into account the species reclassification within the genus which took place in 2009. Upon revaluation, both species of manta rays have now been listed as ‘Vulnerable’, an upgrading from ‘Near Threatened’. Of the 9 species in the genus Mobula 3 are classified as ‘Data Deficient’, 4 as ‘Near Threatened’, 1 as ‘Vulnerable and 1 as ‘Endangered’.
Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)
CITES, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is an international agreement between governments aiming to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Countries adhere voluntarily to the convention and at present some 175 countries are party to the convention. Countries signed up to the convention are legally bound to it, however it does not take the place of national laws.
Species covered by the convention are listed on one of three appendices depending on the level of protection they require. Depending on the Appendix, trade can be only allowed under exceptional circumstances (Appendix I) or very closely restricted and controlled to avoid over utilisation (Appendix II). If listed on Appendix III countries can ask other members of the convention for help in controlling trade.
On the 14th March 2013 the genus Manta was listed on Appendix II of this Convention. This will come into force legally on the 14th September 2014 . Given the international trade which is now rapidly expanding for mobulid gill plates the listing for mantas on this convention will be a vital tool in helping to characterise the scale of this trade and hopefully bring it to a legal end. The Manta Trust team were part of a collaborative team who brought about this change in legislation. For more information follow this link.
Key to legally ending this trade is being able to accurately identify the gill plates of mantas and mobulas. In support of the CITES application The Manta Trust team and our close colleagues, with support from the Pew Environment Group and the Save Our Seas Foundation, put together a Field Identification Guide of the Gill Plates of Mobulid Rays which can be downloaded by following the link.
Convention on Migratory Species (CMS)
The Convention of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) aims to conserve terrestrial, aquatic and avian migratory species throughout their range. It is the only global convention specialising in the conservation of migratory species, their habitats and their migration routes. Currently 116 countries are party to this convention.
Species covered by CMS are listed in two Appendices. Appendix I for species threatened with extinction and Appendix II for species that would significantly benefit from international co-operations. For a species on Appendix I such measures as protection, habitat conservation or restoration, mitigation of obstacles to migration and obligations for each state might be put into practice; a species on Appendix II might be subject to regional and/or global agreements between Range States. Agreements between the member parties with regard to a particular species might range from legally binding treaties to Memoranda of Understanding and can be adapted by region.
In November 2011 the oceanic manta (M. birostris) was listed on both Appendix I and II of CMS. This means that the 116 signatory nations to CMS are now obliged to implement strict protection for giant manta rays and their key habitats.
While international protective legislation is still poor for these animals, some countries have taken their own steps to initiate national protection for their populations of manta rays. Incidentally, it is no coincidence that the countries listed below which afford mantas the greatest protection are those which derive the most benefits economically from doing so.
Republic of Maldives
The Maldives, which has never consumed or fished for its manta population in any significant numbers, has had a complete export ban on all ray species products since June 1995, thereby preventing any international trade in manta rays, effectively protecting these animals and their relatives, from any commercial fisheries.
Fishing for manta rays was banned in Mexico in 2007, when the Mexican Government issued official standard rules that regulate the shark and ray fisheries in Mexican waters. This made it illegal to capture or kill oceanic manta rays in Mexican waters. The official standard provides specific protection for mantas and mobulids in all Mexican waters and prohibits their possession and trade. Mantas are also protected in MPAs within Mexican waters, primarily in the Revillagigedo Biosphere Reserve, following enforcement of a fishing closure, which began in early 2002.
However, enforcement for this protection has been somewhat suspect as many fishing boats have been observed and caught deploying longlines, gillnets and seines within the reserve, which extends as a 12 mile buffer around each of the islands in the archipelago. Meanwhile, since 2004, in the Yum Balam protected area (Isla Holbox, Mexico) manta rays have been protected under strict no fishing laws. The Giant Manta Ray is only used here for tourism purposes, although this new activity could also be affecting the population, with many individuals exhibiting boat injuries.
Fishing was banned in the Philippines in 1998, but this ban was lifted in 1999 due to pressure from fishermen and a lack of data on the fishery. During a yearlong survey, from March 2002 to March 2003, 156 manta rays (M. birostris) were caught, mostly in the months from November to January. A total fishing ban was implemented in the Philippines in 2003. Mantas are now reported to be rare in the Philippines, especially around the Bohol Sea where the fishery was focused.
The small Micronesian island state of Yap has strict laws protecting their small resident population of reef manta rays which are locally extremely important for tourism.
In 2009, the Governor of Hawaii signed a House Bill establishing criminal penalties and administrative fines for knowingly killing or capturing manta rays within State waters. This makes Hawaii the first state in the US union to protect manta rays. There have never been fisheries for manta rays in Hawaii, but this bill will protect all Manta species living in, or passing through, the island group from future fishing pressure.
In 2010 Ecuador also joined the list of nations which have protected manta rays, which will hopefully now see an end to the emerging fishery for these animals in this country.
Of the nine species of mobula rays, three are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as “Data Deficient” (Mobula hypostoma, kuhlii & tarapacana), four as “Near Threatened” (Mobula eregoodootenkee, japanica, munkiana & thurstoni), one as “Vulnerable” (Mobula rochebrunei) and one as “Endangered” (Mobula mobular). Mobula rays fall under the same protective legislation in Ecuador and the Republic of Maldives which also protects their mantas. And in the Philippines, fishing for mobulids was banned in 1998; however the ban was lifted again in 1999 to study the fishery, and then once again re-instated in 2002.
Currently it is illegal to fish for any Mobula species in the Philippines, however, enforcement is virtually nonexistent and large numbers of mobulids are still being taken illegally each year. Only the Giant Mobula Ray (Mobula mobular), which is restricted to the Mediterranean Sea, has specific species protection under Annex II “List of endangered or threatened species” to the Protocol concerning Special Protected Areas and Biological Diversity in the Mediterranean of the Barcelona Convention.
Virtually nothing is known about the life history strategies of these more elusive cousins of the mantas, and what little data does exists for some of the species is based on data collected mainly from just a few studies globally. It is this lack of scientific data which is the main stumbling block preventing further protective measures being implemented by the international conservation organizations.
An in-depth and co-ordinated global study of the genus Mobula is therefore urgently needed if scientists are to determine exactly how many species there are, and the impacts the global fisheries are having on the populations of these poorly studied animals.