Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Posted on 31 July 2016

Why the world needs to protect Devil Rays at CITES conference
What are you top 10 favourite sea creatures? Go on, write them down. I’ll give you as long as you need. No hurry………Finished? Good, writes Ian Campbell, WWF-Pacific shark and ray expert.

I’m going to take a wild guess at the contents of your list and I reckon it’ll contain some kind of shark (who doesn’t love sharks?). A whale or a dolphin perhaps? Maybe some kind of shellfish or something with huge claws? I’d also put money on some of you plumping for a something off the wall like a blobfish, a sunfish or even a colossal squid.

I’m also guessing that many of you will have included manta rays in your list somewhere. Undeniably beautiful creatures of such grace and elegance that they absolutely take your breath away if you are lucky enough to see one (although loss of breath can have its own issues if you are diving at the time). I am also confident that among all the charismatic marine fish that normally make people’s top ten, not many of you will have included Devil Rays  (a shiny gold star for any of you that did).

What the heck is a Devil Ray I imagine many of you are asking (mainly for the narrative purposes of this blog). Well, I am more than happy to tell you about these often overlooked and criminally unloved close relatives of the much more famous manta rays. Devil Rays, or mobula rays to give them their more scientific name, are smaller and more elusive than manta rays, but display very similar characteristics. But it is also no wonder that many people know little about them since even scientists do not know a huge amount about the nine species that have been identified so far.

What we do know is that they are slow growing, give birth to very few young (as few as one pup per litter), and are facing very real threats to their survival from overfishing.

They also seem to think they can fly! Devil Rays can be found in large aggregations, and have been known to display exhilarating feats of acrobatics that wouldn’t disgrace the Rio Olympics.

While detailed information is extremely limited, estimates of how many Devil Rays are caught around the globe each year have skyrocketed from around 1,000 tonnes in 2005 to over 6,000 tonnes in 2013. However, these statistics could easily a substantial underestimate due to the difficulty of identifying Devil Rays and they are based on data from only five countries.

While there is a very limited demand for Devil Rays as a source of food, they are highly prized for their gill plates, which are used to filter food out of the water. Unfortunately, just like manta rays, their gill plates are eagerly sought after in parts of Asia for their perceived – but unproven – medicinal properties. This market pressure, coupled with their susceptibility to overfishing and their highly migratory nature, is putting populations of these fish in danger.

So far, so doom and gloom. But the story for the Devil Rays does contain good news.

In 2014, WWF’s shark team (rays are just little pancake shaped sharks to us) worked with many other partner organisations to push for international protection of Devil Rays on the Convention for Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (mercifully called CMS for short). WWF were part of Fiji’s official delegation, which successfully proposed international protection under this convention – and started the ball rolling for Devil Ray conservation.

Move forward to 2016 and we will again be helping the Fijian government (backed by 21 other governments and numerous NGOs, including our partners in the Global Shark and Ray Initiative) to seek increased limits on the trade of Devil Ray parts by incorporating them into the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (also mercifully shortened to CITES).

If the proposal is adopted by the 182 Parties at the world’s most important wildlife trade conference (otherwise known as the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties or CoP17) starting in South Africa in September, international trade in the gill plates and meat of these beautiful creatures will require strict permits and scientific assessment before being permitted. WWF and our partners will be campaigning from now until the vote to ensure world leaders protect Devil Rays – as they did with Manta Rays at the previous CITES CoP in 2013 – and so provide some more good news for these embattled denizons of the deep blue sea.

You never know, perhaps they will also end up in a few more people’s top ten. And with added protection, stay there for generations to come.
Spinetail Devil Ray, Maldives. Fiji has proposed that all devil ray species are protected under CITES
© Guy Stevens / Manta Trust
Sickle-fin devil ray gill plate
© Andy Cornish / WWF
Spinetail Devil Ray, Maldives. Fiji has proposed that all devil ray species are protected under CITES
© Guy Stevens / Manta Trust
Mobula rays in a market in Colombo, Sri Lanka
© Andy Cornish / WWF
Fiji delegation at the Convention on Migratory Species, where mobula or devil rays were first given global protection
© Ian Campbell / WWF