What are Manta Rays, Who are the Manta Trust, and Why Should You Care?
by Josh Stewart and Danny Copeland
Manta rays are fascinating fish. They are easily up there with Great White Sharks, Blue Whales and Orca as one of the most charismatic animals in our oceans…or have you never heard of them before?
Rest assured, as here you’ll find a quick overview of everything you need to know about manta rays, and links to more information if you want to learn more. Unfortunately, like many marine species, manta populations are in trouble – so we’ve also included some info about the threats facing these animals, who we (The Manta Trust) are, and what is being done to help conserve them.
What are Manta Rays?
Manta rays are one of the largest animals in the ocean. These giant fish are rays, (basically the flattened cousins of sharks), and are in fact the largest species of ray, growing up to an enormous 8 metres / 26 feet across! In addition, mantas are perhaps the smartest fish on the planet – their huge brains relative to their body size mean their behavior is more similar to a marine mammal, rather than your typical fish.
Although they are related to the stingray, mantas are harmless – they do not have a stinging barb on their tail. So no, they are not the same animal that killed Steve Irwin! In fact, you should only be worried about a manta if you happen to be microscopic in size, as these fish feed on nothing but tiny marine animals called zooplankton.
Their immense size, incredible curiosity and intelligence, gentle behavior, and graceful movements make mantas one of the top attractions for ecotourists around the world. Mantas generate over US $140 million in tourism revenue each year, and are a favorite of divers and snorkelers. However, some of their biological characteristics make mantas very vulnerable to human impacts, particularly fishing.
Mantas can live for over 50 years, give birth to only one pup at a time, don’t reach sexual maturity for up to 10 years, and have extremely small population sizes. This means that mantas live very conservative lives – which makes them vulnerable to exploitation by humans.
Threats to Manta Rays
Because mantas have such slow population growth rates (thanks to their long lives, few offspring and late maturity), they don’t bounce back from population impacts very quickly. Smaller fishes that can produce millions of eggs each year have the ability to regenerate their populations extremely quickly, making them ideal fisheries for humans. Mantas, on the other hand, are extremely vulnerable to any kind of fishing pressure. Historically, bycatch, or the accidental catch of manta rays while targeting a different species of fish, was the major threat to manta rays.However over the last decade, targeted fisheries for mantas have been growing in response to demand for their gill plates in Asian medicine. This demand is having devastating impacts on manta populations worldwide.
Who Are The Manta Trust?
The Manta Trust is a UK registered charity, set up in 2011 to co-ordinate global efforts to conserve the world’s manta rays and their habitats. We’re made up of a global team of individuals from all walks of life – researchers, filmmakers, journalists, graphic designers – united by the same desire to save these charismatic rays.
In terms of our research, we represent 16 projects spread across the world including; studying the characteristics of the world’s largest population of reef mantas in the Maldives, monitoring the fisheries of Sri Lanka and India, investigating the mysterious lives of oceanic mantas in the Pacific, Mexico and South America, and understanding the relationships between all these different populations by studying their genetic code.
But research isn’t all that we do. We take a holistic approach to conservation, providing education, raising awareness and using influence to secure a sustainable, long-term future for these animals.
Just watched the NY Times video about Josh and The Manta Trust?
If not, check out our Associate Director, Josh Stewart, in action just below:
The Maldivian population of manta rays featured in the NY Times video is perhaps the largest population of mantasin the world, and this huge population is supported by a complex set of conditions unique to the beautiful Maldives. Learn more about the Maldivian manta population, the research being conducted there by The Manta Trust’s flagship project, and the conservation priorities for mantas in the region here. The Maldivian manta population was made famous by coverage of incredible manta feeding aggregations in National Geographic and on the BBC.
Josh Stewart, an Associate Director of The Manta Trust featured in the video, studies the population dynamics and spatial ecology of oceanic manta rays. In short, he is investigating how far oceanic mantas travel, how large are their populations, where can we find oceanic manta hotspots, and how can we protect them?
You can learn more about his specific research by visiting dataMares.
How can I stay informed? How do I help? How can I get involved?
If you want to keep updated on anything to do with manta ray research, news and conservation, we share all of this and more via our Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram pages. Be sure to follow us to stay in touch!
You can also help fundraise for the Manta Trust and our research efforts, without it costing you a thing. We have a page set up with Give as You Live, so that retailers make a small donation for purchases you make online. See our Fundraise for Free page to learn how to set this up.
If you’re keen to see the world’s largest ray for yourself, and take part in collecting data vital for their conservation, we run trips and expeditions in conjunction with eco-minded tour operators around the world. Check out our Manta Expeditions page for more info.
Alternatively, if you’re a student, graduate or early career conservationist that’s interested in getting involved in manta and marine megafauna research, we do run a Volunteer Programme with our Maldivian Manta Ray Project. See our volunteer page for more info on this opportunity.