Although it happened almost three years ago, I still remember taking part in the initial discussion about creating a mobulid identification guide that would be both comprehensive and global. ‘How hard could it be?’ I thought. After all, there are only 11 species in total: two mantas and nine mobulas. Well, it turns out that it could be – and is – quite a complicated task, given the ambiguities surrounding some of the species. This, coupled with the complexity of conducting research in war-stricken or extremely remote regions of the world, made it all the more challenging. But I am getting ahead of myself. First let me explain why we set up this project in the first place.
It is no secret that manta and mobula populations are in decline around the world, largely because of the increasing demand for their dried gill plates, which are used in Chinese medicine. Like other elasmobranchs, mobulid rays are characterised by their conservative life-history traits, which make them highly susceptible to any fishing pressure and extremely slow to recover from depletion. But we need to be able to give fisheries management authorities a large amount of scientific data to demonstrate these traits so that they can manage the stocks appropriately. And this is where we encountered one critical problem. It became apparent that one of the constraining factors to collecting the data required was the difficulty in distinguishing between the 11 mobulid species. The result was that little – and in some circumstances even inaccurate – data were gathered. Either way, we realised that it was time for somebody to take the lead and create a global mobulid guide, one that would augment the data currently available and help researchers and enforcement agencies to identify specimens effortlessly.
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.