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Today the ocean made history. Animal conservationists and focal points from almost 100 Range States around the world rallied on behalf of marine fishes worldwide, fighting for their voice on an international platform. Today we decided that the unsustainable demand that we as humans place on our marine resources deserves to be better monitored and our threatened species better protected. And today, the very focus of CITES as an organization was irreversibly altered to embark down a path where the ocean is no longer a domain we ignore, with issues we are afraid to address.
All day, in a room filled with government representatives, scientists, IGO’s and not-for-profit organizations from around the globe, we debated how we as humans will approach the future of ocean conservation through the CITES framework. Among us, there were conservatives, frightened of dramatic change or preoccupied with the logistics of implementation, there were impassioned liberals, resistant to the use of any animal for human consumption or greedy exploits and there were plenty of people who just respect nature and were genuinely unsure of the best approach to take. In the true spirit of the democratic ideals that CITES stands for, we heard from them all. And while Janneman Conradie, MMF’s Director of Conservation, had to stop me one or two times from jumping out of my seat to take on some of the more conservative delegates… on the whole, I found the debates both educational and enlightening, broadening my perspective on a variety of controversial and pressing conservation issues.
As the debate wound down and we approached the time to commit to our various positions, the tension in the air was palpable. I think people could feel the weight of the decisions being made and the permanence that would accompany them. The dozens and dozens of conversations that I’d had with delegates over the week were buzzing around in my head. My thoughts came to rest on a remark of one particular delegate, who had likened the potentially positive decision of CITES Parties today as leap off a precipice from the known to the unknown. He, like many others, expressed his uncertainty about how CITES would be able to implement and tackle the regulation of trade in ocean species like sharks and rays.
As I sat gauging the feel of the room, I reflected back on my own experiences and the 10-year journey that had brought me to this day. I remembered that it was at a batoid workshop for the Shark Specialist Group in Cape Town, South Africa, so many years ago, where a tiny seed of possibility had been planted. At this time, manta rays were still listed by the IUCN as ‘data deficient’ and it was anyone’s guess what their conservation status was worldwide. Intrigued and fresh to the world of science, I thought to myself…well, why don’t we find out! This decision changed the course of my life and set me on an unwavering mission to learn more about this species (which later turned into multiple species) for the sake of their conservation.
The more we learned the more alarmed we became. Each re-assessment of the IUCN Redlist generated more and more concern from the public as the severity of their conservation status began to climb. Ultimately in recognition of the increased threat they face around the world, manta rays were upgraded in 2011 to their current status of ‘vulnerable to extinction‘. In response, my team prepared and submitted a proposal for the inclusion of giant mantas on the Appendices of the Convention for Migratory Species Act (CMS) to the Ecuadorian Government. Ecuador have eagerly and very responsibly taken swift action to protect manta rays. Boasting the largest identified population of giant manta rays in the world, they have taken an aggressive approach to the conservation of manta rays both in their country and internationally. With almost no opposition from Range States, the proposed listing of Manta birostris on CMS was adopted in late 2011. The wheel had been set in motion and the race for the international protection of manta rays was on.
The fact remains that we still know very little about manta rays. What we do know is as astounding as it is frightening. In no uncertain terms, manta rays are victims of their own biology. Researchers around the world have shown that manta rays are amongst the least fecund of all elasmobranch species, with extremely conservative life history traits, most notably their small litter size. As one of the Brazilian delegates so appropriately said this afternoon, “Their reproductive capacity can barely compensate for their natural mortality.” This fact itself is cause for alarm, as it is common knowledge that low productivity species are highly vulnerable to anthropogenic pressures like fishing.
Translation? Well, examples work best for me, so I will use this opportunity to highlight a new study by MMF scientists, which captured an alarming trend recently in Mozambique. Over the last eight years, our researchers have noted a swift and significant 88% decline in observational sighting records of Manta alfredi at one of the most important aggregation areas for this species in the Indian Ocean. The apparent decline (or exodus) of one of the world’s largest identified populations of manta rays has been linked to coastal artisanal fishing pressure. This fishery operates at a much smaller scale than more targeted and organized fisheries being monitored in countries like India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Peru. While comprehensive studies are still being conducted in these areas, the implications of our latest study should be clear and serve to show that even small-scale fisheries can have swift and devastating effects on even large populations of manta rays.
It has been well demonstrated that international trade is driving current fisheries for manta rays. Many populations of manta rays across the globe are in swift decline as a result of targeted fisheries for their gill rakers, a body part used in Chinese health tonics. Those of us studying wild populations of manta rays are already seeing first hand substantial declines in their numbers across the globe. What’s worse…the current market for their products will likely expand in the future, with demand at an all time high. This timely proposal for the inclusion of species within the genus Manta on Appendix II of CITES by Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia was a passionate intervention on behalf of these exquisite animals to ensure that products are only sourced from sustainable fisheries that do not put Manta species at risk.
And believe me, we are not looking for charity or pity votes here; Manta rays clearly meet the criteria for Appendix II listing. This fact had been supported by the CITES Secretariat, the IUCN and TRAFFIC. The FAO Expert Panel itself noted trade as an important driver for the targeted fisheries of manta rays and highlighted the current lack of management at regional and international levels as problematic for Manta populations across their respective distributions. Curbing increases in unsustainable fisheries for Manta species globally, particularly shifts from subsistence to trade fisheries, will take a multifaceted and comprehensive approach with cooperation at local, national, regional and international levels. CITES can play a huge role by provide the framework for increased monitoring and regulation of trade. At minimum, a CITES Appendix II listing requires that exports be derived from sustainably managed fisheries that are not detrimental to the status of the wild populations that they exploit. The good news? There are currently NO trade fisheries for these species that can demonstrate this sufficiently.
But today’s decision by Parties was only partly about facts. Proposals dealing with high value species or ones presenting difficulties in trade regulation are unfortunately commonly accompanied by a lack of political will and economic self-interest. Even if the need to protect a species is as clear as day, like the Blue Fin tuna or the Oceanic Whitetip shark, politics and other economic interests sometimes stand in the way. But somehow the mood behind the Manta proposal felt different. Perhaps its because manta rays are iconic, non-threatening species. Perhaps it’s because despite fisheries having devastating effects on manta ray populations, the economic value to this fishery, as a whole, is low, with only a few interest groups profiting from the international trade in their body parts. Or maybe it is because these fish are revered in so many cultures across the globe. Or better still, perhaps it is because people have begun to understand that the economic benefits of their survival outweigh any single profit use.
As has been repeatedly suggested here today (one plea by a passionate Brazilian, representing the diving community & diving industries around the world stood out above the rest, um beijo Pinguim!), a far more sustainable use of these species would be as drawcards for marine tourism, an ever-expanding and very lucrative industry that may both benefit a wider variety of interest groups than consumptive use and help safeguard revenue within the Range States where these species reside or frequent. Manta rays are worth an estimated $73 million USD in direct revenue and $140 million USD to the overall marine tourism industry annually. This makes the argument for the Appendix II listing of manta rays just as much about protecting the right of developing countries to use their natural resources as they chose, (whether for domestic trade and subsistence or in favour of more sustainable and lucrative alternatives) as it is about the species’ protection and conservation.
Regardless of which of the arguments moved the different Parties today, the fact was that the manta ray proposal had all the bases covered. And today, on the 40-year anniversary of the CITES convention, by some small miracle, the science, the lobbying efforts, the saturation of the media over the last year, everything, all paid off in one moment, a single, breath-taking moment.
Time stood still as I watched the monitor in eager anticipation for the electronic votes to be tallied before us. And then, in the blink of an eye, it was over.
The screen flashed the most beautiful bar graph that I have ever seen, an overwhelming bias of green. The CITES Appendix II proposal for manta rays had passed, with far more than the required 2/3 majority support. A whopping 80.67% of the Parties had voted in our favor and had exercised an unprecedented precautionary approach to avoid the over-exploitation of one of the world’s most exquisite marine animals. And so, these iconic marine giants have made history again. This time not with the marvels of their biology, with their feats of endurance, or even with their unparalleled grace and beauty, this time they have made history as a trendsetter in a new age of ocean conservation.