Monday, September 15, 2014

MCAF in Action: Building a Global Strategy for Mantas and Devil Rays

This post is one of a series on projects supported by the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists and grassroots organizations all around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the ocean.  

For example, the Manta Trust has received funds from MCAF to support manta ray research around the world. Its scientists recently asked the Aquarium community to help name two recently tagged rays. Thanks to everyone who submitted names! A winner will be announced this Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014. 

This series focuses on research and conservation for manta and mobula rays around the world. Guest blogger Kerstin Forsberg of Planeta Oceano talks about attending an international meeting to discuss conservation plans for mobulid rays.

As a young biologist working on manta and devil ray conservation, I was super excited when I received an invitation from the IUCN Shark Specialist Group (SSG) to participate at the Manta and Devil Ray Global Conservation Strategy Workshop. This workshop had the aim of reviewing the global conservation status of manta and devil rays (collectively called mobulids) and developing actions required for their conservation worldwide. I had been invited thanks to our team’s work pioneering the conservation of these species’ in Peru.

In 2012, together with the Manta Trust and WildAid, we started a small research project on mobulid fisheries in Peru. Since that date, and with support from the New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund, our project has grown to also assess mobulid trade and meat consumption, promote legislation efforts for these species, raise awareness and promote alternate livelihoods through ecotourism. It was great to feel that by participating in this IUCN workshop, our local work would now also be of global benefit!

The next moment I knew, I was packing my bags, reports and data, and traveling for more than 25 hours from Lima, Peru, to Durban, South Africa, an enchanting city in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. Durban is well known for its busy port and attractive beaches. However, in this case the action wouldn’t take place in the field but rather in a significant conference room:

The Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund helped support the participation of Peruvian scientist Kerstin Forsberg (standing at left in purple shirt) at the IUCN Shark Specialist Group, Manta and Devil Ray workshop in South Africa. Kerstin was one of nineteen researchers at the meeting, which also included, past MCAF grantee Daniel Fernando (in red, back row) of the Manta Trust. Photo: Alessandro Ponzo.

Once I stepped into the workshop, I came across both new and familiar faces. It was exciting to meet mobulid ‘rockstar’ scientists, like Giuseppe Notarbartolo-di-Sciara, whose research we had been a model for our work. In total, we were 19 people representing the non-profit, academia, government and intergovernmental sectors. Some of us specialized in developing conservation strategies, some of us in manta science, some of us in a bit of both.

During that first day together, we each gave a presentation on our work. It was incredible to hear about efforts in places from Indonesia to Italy, and then share our story from Peru. All the presentations were quite different, but most seemed to share the same narrative: great threats to mobulid rays worldwide. I witnessed as my audience was left eye-opened when I presented photographs of pregnant mantas being harvested in Peru, or when I showed our data on thousands of devil rays being captured for local consumption.

A manta ray leaps out of the water off the coast of Tumbes, Peru. Photo: Alex Purdy, the Manta Trust.

Over the next three days, we then had the task to define the global strategy. Initially it seemed as one hard task to accomplish, especially if you put together an inter-disciplinary and international group of professionals who all have their say. Yet somehow our workshop moderator helped us assemble the bits and pieces of the strategy, and through continuous group discussions, it remarkably started to build itself up…

Through consensus, we all defined a vision of what we wanted for devil and manta ray populations: for these to ‘flourish in resilient ocean ecosystems, harmoniously with human communities…’. To attain this dream, we’d need to achieve three goals: The first, to maintain and recover populations through management of fisheries, trade and demand. The second, to create, communicate and apply knowledge required to conserve devil and manta rays. The third, to support, educate and engage communities in mobulid conservation. We then broke up into groups, to detail specific actions needed for each of these goals.

Before long, we were developing a critical tool to steer mobulid conservation efforts worldwide. This exciting document is now expected to receive inputs from a larger scientific community, and to later be published in a vital paper or report, just as the IUCN SSG previously issued for Sawfish.

In addition to building this strategy, great thoughts came out of these roundtable discussions, such as collaborative ideas to publish scientific information together, proposals to re-evaluate IUCN Red List status for some species, and international partnerships to aid in valuable taxonomy research, among others.

All this time, while we were working on these issues, I couldn’t help but think of the mantas and devil rays in the wild… striving in the ocean or facing multiple threats. These mobulids had no clue of what our group was up to, but if our strategy was implemented and accomplished, their populations would be automatically benefitted.  Now, our challenge was to move our plans from paper to action.

Mobula rays, such as this one, are relatives of the manta rays.  Photo: Planeta Oceano

I got on the plane back to Lima with even more energy to continue our work back home. This experience would have been impossible without the immense support of the Aquarium’s Marine Action Conservation Fund, as well as Project Aware and the IUCN SSG.

I looked down into the ocean and imagined the mantas and devil rays swimming beneath us once more. And that’s when the take-home message returned: There is hope for manta rays and devil rays; we just have to put our minds, hearts and hands to action. And this way, what each of us is doing locally will sum up globally… building a collaborative and organized coalition to achieve a true conservation impact for these species.

Head shot credit – Planeta Oceano
Kerstin Forsberg is the founder and director of Planeta Oceano in Peru, winner of the World Wildlife Fund’s Internationa President’s Award, and a grantee of the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund. Read about Kerstin's visit to the New England Aquarium here.

Kerstin gave a lecture as part of the Aquarium Lecture Series in the fall of 2013. Watch that lecture on our YouTube Channel.

Learn about other projects supported by the Aquarium's MCAF program, all supporting grassroots research around the world to study and protect animals and habitats of our blue planet!

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