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Myth of the manta

Ilaitia Turagabeci
Monday, February 25, 2013

THEY come from a family way back in time.

Surviving the events that wiped the dinosaurs off the face of the Earth, they lived through the ages without changing much.

But after defying world-changing chapters in time, they now face the greatest threat to their existence.

The shark and the ray — thought by some evolutionary biologists to be from a common ancestor — are now red-listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as the most vulnerable and endangered species in the ocean.

These ancient creatures — whose skeletons are made of cartilage, not bones like other fish — share the same class called chondrichthyes.

They're the most recognisable wonders of the ocean but are different in so many ways.

The shark, the apex predator and most feared of all species in the water, cruises like a heat-seeking missile that can change direction at top speed in a second it senses food.

The ray is the opposite.

It is a like a giant bird, gliding gracefully through the ocean.

While sharks are estimated to have raked in an estimated $F75million in tourism dollars in Fiji in 2010 — according to a study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Western Australia — they have become a fisheries industry on their own for the lucrative fin trade in China.

Now the manta and mobula rays have joined the sharks in the swim for their lives. They're being sought after for their gill rakers, filaments that filter their food from the water.

China's appetite for hard-to-get delicacies from the planet's last frontiers for its growing wealthy population has turned the rays — tourist attractions in our waters — into an industry.

According to recently-released report by the Manta Ray of Hope Project, a joint effort of two conservation organisations, Shark Savers and WildAid, Guangzhou is the hub of the trade in dried parts of the ray, which retail for as much as $US500 ($F891) a kilogram.

The research team's findings entitled Manta Ray of Hope: The Global Threat to Manta and Mobula Rays said the two species had been driven to the brink of extinction within a short space of time.

Shawn Heinrichs and Paul Hilton, photographers who had been monitoring the international soaring trade in shark fins, said the appearance of those creatures in the markets "came as a real shock".

The researchers noted that the gills, boiled along with other fish products in a soup that is promoted as a cure for anything from chickenpox to cancer, had not previously been prescribed in traditional Chinese medicine.

They concluded that the rising popularity of the ingredient was the result of traders' efforts to create a market.

They said the growth in demand has been devastating for populations of both rays, especially so because they reproduce very slowly.

Fiji shark campaigner Manoa Rasigatale, who has been the face of shark conservation to provinces around our islands, said while the manta ray issue had not reached our shores, the public must be made aware of the dangers removing them from the marine eco-system would pose.

"Manta rays, just like the sharks, are at the top of the food chain. Destabilising this food chain with our greed for money for this trade that has crept into Asia and is close to our side of the world will do more harm than already has been done," he said.

"The economics and the moral imperative for sharks and rays are clear.

"We need a moratorium on gill raker trade, and measures for complete protection to some populations and to reduce fishing pressure for others."

Mr Rasigatale said there was no health benefit in having shark fin soup, likewise in gill rakers of the rays.

"There's nothing in it. For some weird belief, those who participate in these trades have convinced the Chinese population that they'll live longer eating this. That's just a load of lies."

He said it took years of campaigning before shark sanctuaries and bans on shark fin possession began to materialise around the world.

"In Fiji, while we have reached out to the younger generation on the benefits sharks bring to our waters alive than dead, we're still trying to convince the stakeholders and we're working with the government to put in place a shark management plan."

On the future of the rays, he said: "We simply don't have the time to go through years of raising public awareness before action is taken."

The issue of endangered shark species and the manta and mobula rays will be discussed at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Bangkok, Thailand, from March 3 to 14.

At this critical meeting, governments will debate adding five species of sharks and two species of manta rays to the treaty. A positive result will limit international trade of shark fin and meat and manta gill rakers and help reduce the threat of over fishing facing these species.

The Pew Environment Group and the Coral Reef Alliance, which have been spearheading shark conservation in Fiji waters, are lobbying for support to pass the treaty.

Mr Rasigatale said it was important that Fiji was represented at the meeting.

"This is an important meeting that Fiji should attend because our voice, our vote, will determine the future of these endangered species," he said.

"We must do this for the future of our generations to come. At all costs, Fiji must attend this meeting and raise its hand where it counts the most.

Ministry of Fisheries permanent secretary Inoke Wainiqolo said they were still discussing their attendance at CITES 2013 with the Ministry of Environment.

While they do that, the advocates push towards Bangkok to keep the sharks and the rays alive.

"This is a big vote and a big moment for sharks and the manta rays," said Mr Rasigatale.

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