Endangered Species on the Menu
Mantas are filter-feeders: they use their feathery gill plates to strain out plankton after ingesting large volumes of seawater. This remarkable filtering ability has been touted as nothing short of miraculous by Chinese medicine vendors—who are promoting "health tonics", brewed from dried manta gill plates mixed with ginseng and herbs. Chinese medicine vendors promote the belief that by eating a particular species, the consumer can acquire the super-powers associated with that species—which is a load of hogwash. Having depleted the world of sharks to make sharkfin soup, they are moving along to the next victim: rays.
Chinese medicine has a tradition dating back 2,000 years, but gill plates from various rays have only been added to the "menu" in the last decade, touted for their supposed detoxifying and purifying properties. And during that decade, fishing of mantas and mobulas has increased many-fold, leading to a precipitous drop in the population. In some areas, a 30-percent drop; in other areas, the drop is over 80 percent. Manta cartilage has also been substituted for shark cartilage in Chinese medicinal potions.
Even in the Maldives, where mantas and sharks are fully protected species, rays are declining in number, perhaps due to climate-change factors such as weaker monsoons. In the Maldives, numerous Marine Protected Areas have been established where fishing is highly restricted. Getting these MPAs started has resulted from the efforts of researchers like Guy Stevens. Stevens is a British marine biologist who came to the Maldives to work as a guide with Four Seasons Resort. Fascinated by mantas, he stayed on to establish a marine research center, with Four Seasons as the major patron.
Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru is a super-luxury resort with a difference—a deep commitment to the environment. Coral reefs in the Maldives were severely damaged by coral bleaching in the 1990s and were again hit by the tsunami of 2004. Four Seasons has pioneered a solution to the devastation—in the form of reefscaping. This means building reefs from scratch by attaching small pieces of coral on circular metal frames and then submerging the frames. Over time, the mini-reefs grow and marine critters move into their shiny new coral homes. While I am at the Marine Discovery Centre, a Korean family purchases two big frames, and their kids tie on tiny pieces of coral. Their names are inscribed on a small plate attached. A new initiative here is the Fish Lab, where species like seahorses and Maldivian clownfish are propagated. This is a start-up for selling to aquariums, providing income for local communities, and preventing poaching of wild species.
Slaughter of the Rays
This story has a grisly ending. On a stop-over in Sri Lanka, I witness the dark side of the manta life-cycle. Dark meaning the end of the world, as rays know it. Dark meaning horrific slaughter. Dark meaning before sunrise, when the fish markets in Negombo are at their busiest, unloading fresh catch. Actually, "bycatch" would be closer—everything that vast nets haul up, useful or not. The haul includes hammerhead sharks, baby sharks torn from the bellies of their mothers, whole devil rays, and manta ray pieces. Mantas are too large and heavy to carry, so they are hacked into three or four pieces, often while still alive, to enable hauling along the docks with hooks. This is a morgue for sharks and rays.
Sri Lanka has emerged as the number one fishery of mantas and mobulas world-wide: their dried gill plates end up in Guangzhou, China. It is highly disturbing to see these magnificent creatures chopped into pieces. Mantas never harm humans, but humans slaughter them—just to feed the whims of bogus Chinese medicine vendors. The fishing of rays in Sri Lanka is mostly driven by the demand for dried gill plates in Chinese medicine, since ray meat is considered low-grade and cannot compare to sought-out fish like yellowfin tuna.
A dead ray may sell for US$150 in Sri Lanka, but the same manta—alive—is worth exponentially more as a key draw for dive-tourism in places like the Maldives. A recent study of manta ray dive-tourism worldwide estimates it is worth US$140 million annually, compared with perhaps US$5 million annually for fisheries income. Mantas are a key draw for liveaboard dive-boats and for freediving snorkelers at numerous sites around the world, from Mexico to Mozambique.
In early 2013, manta rays were added to the CITES list of endangered species. This advocates a complete ban on the fishing of mantas, but the ruling is not enforceable. For more information about diving with these amazing creatures, and about the campaign to save them, see www.mantatrust.org.
Michael Buckley is a frequent traveler to southeast-Asian and Himalayan regions. His e-books are available through Smashwords.com—just search: buckeroo. Buckley is author of a number of books on Tibet (listed at www.himmies.com) and filmmaker for several short documentaries about Tibet (www.WildYakFilms.com).
All photos by the author except where indicated.
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Scars of the Wild by Stephen Markley
On Safari in Sri Lanka by Michael Buckley
See other Asia travel stories from the archives
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