Can a small island nation in a remote location in the Pacific Ocean change the world of marine conservation? A silly idea, you might think. Surely that’s not possible? Well, we challenge you to reconsider this assumption, as we introduce to you the extraordinary work that the nation of Fiji has done, quietly standing up to become the world’s champion for mobula conservation.
The government of Fiji took the first step towards global protection of these amazing animals in 2014 when it proposed that mobula rays and the reef manta be listed on Appendix I and Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). The proposal was approved at the 11th Conference of the Parties in Quito, Ecuador, and marks a significant success, particularly as the listing represented the first-ever protection for mobula rays
at international level.
In December 2015 Fiji stepped up again, giving us an early Christmas present: a proposal to list all species of mobula rays on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) at the next Conference of the Parties in 2016. Both the reef and the oceanic mantas were listed on CITES Appendix II in 2013, but no such protection is in place for their smaller cousins.
‘Mobula rays are facing global population declines due to growing and unregulated international trade,’ says Eleni Tokaduadua, the principal environment officer and head of the Fijian CITES Management Authority. ‘We recognise their economic value through sustainable means such as ecotourism and encourage countries to support this proposal to ensure the survival of these species for generations to come.’
Mobula rays, like their close cousins the manta rays, grow slowly, mature late and produce few offspring over their long lifetimes. This life-history strategy, coupled with their migratory nature and schooling behaviour, makes them extremely vulnerable to overexploitation.
Escalating demand for the dried gill plates of mobulas, which are used in Chinese medicine, as well as for their meat and cartilage, has led to these vulnerable species being targeted by fisheries that are largely unregulated and unmonitored. Significant declines in mobula catches have been observed in a number of locations in the Indo-Pacific, Eastern Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, often despite evidence of increased fishing effort. Population declines are likely to be occurring in other locations but have gone unnoticed.
‘As a small island nation, Fiji greatly values all marine resources and we recognise the need to improve protection for slow-growing and vulnerable species such as mobula rays,’ highlights Aisake Batibasaga, the director of fisheries at the Fijian Ministry of Fisheries and Forest. ‘A CITES Appendix II listing will ensure that all international trade in these species is managed sustainably.’
The CITES listing would not only build upon the existing CMS Appendix I and Appendix II listings, but would also mean that trade in mobula body parts would have to be managed through science-based export limits. In addition, it would bolster
national and regional protection; complement the CITES measures in place for manta species and the CMS listing of all manta and mobula rays; encourage sustainable international trade; help determine trends in populations; and contribute to the implementation of the United Nations FAO International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks.
The Manta Trust congratulates the government of Fiji for taking these decisive steps to protect mobula rays. Now it’s time for the rest of the world to take action and follow Fiji’s bold move by supporting its proposal to conserve these vulnerable and valuable species. With endorsement from several international NGOs, the Manta Trust has produced a document entitled‘Devils in distress’, which presents more information about mobula rays and provides insight into the threats they face. The Manta Trust is fully committed to supporting Fiji in order to ensure the success of this proposal and assisting all nations with the implementation of such a listing.
Having started out in the Maldives, the Manta Trust is now active in about 16 countries worldwide promoting the conservation of manta and devil rays and their habitat through research, awareness and education. Three of its current major operations are the Global Mobulid ID Project, which aims to provide a taxonomic, morphological and genetic identification guide to manta and devil rays; the collection of data about ray landings in India, which will inform conservation management in that country; and the Indonesian Manta Project, which works to promote an appreciation of manta and devil rays among local people.