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Thailand can offer a ray of light to an endangered species

Manta rays - a charismatic and valuable marine species - are experiencing drastic decline across Southeast Asia due to trade-driven unsustainable fisheries.

Last week in Bangkok at the Conference of the Parties on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Thailand and other CITES member countries, had a chance to vote on doing something to stop that decline. Moreover, as chair of CITES, Thailand has a chance to lead the CITES membership in this direction. Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador have proposed to add manta rays to the list of species regulated in international trade under CITES. However, confused information recently published in the media may threaten the adoption of this important proposal.

Thai Fisheries Department chief Wimol Jantrarotai has reportedly said that his agency disagrees with the proposed listing, as it could hurt local fishermen and the ornamental fish industry.

There are further claims that Thailand imports freshwater manta rays from South American countries for breeding and then exports the fish to Europe, Japan and the US. Further, that listing the manta ray could pose difficulties in the export of the fish species. Three of the four manta ray species proposed for listing are said to be popular among Thai breeders.

This information is incorrect. Wimol may have confused the manta ray (Proposal 46) with the Ceja river stingray (Proposal 47), in which there is an ornamental fish industry in Thailand, and in which Thailand is the number one exporter in the world.

However, there are only two species of manta ray - giant manta rays (Manta birostris) and reef manta rays (Manta alfredi) - and neither is a freshwater fish. Manta rays are not bred in Thailand, or anywhere else commercially, or for the ornamental fish breeding industry. Mantas are a very large (up to seven meters across), slow-growing species that are not suitable for captive breeding. Only four manta captive births have been reported, all occurring in one large public aquarium in Japan.

The giant manta ray is a majestic, highly migratory, ray native to Thailand, which the IUCN has included on its "Red List" of threatened species as vulnerable to extinction. Manta ray populations have been declining rapidly in recent years due to unsustainable fisheries spurred by a growing international trade in their gill plates. These gill plates are used in a purported health tonic in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau. With more than 80 percent of the profits from this unsustainable trade going to the international traders and retailers, manta ray populations in many coastal communities are being decimated to enrich the pockets of these few foreign traders and retailers.

This trade is driving the exploitation of manta rays at a rate that is entirely unsustainable and could lead to their complete demise within a short time span if not regulated by CITES.

Manta rays are hugely popular among snorkellers and scuba divers, who pay large amounts of money to dive with them. Places such as Micronesia, the Maldives and Hawaii that have banned the fishing of manta rays have thriving tourism industries devoted to manta rays. In Hawaii, for example, every evening more than 100 snorkellers and divers paying over US$5,000 to swim with manta rays, generating over $500,000 per day. A recent study on the value of manta ray tourism estimates the tourist expenditures on manta ray watching in Thailand at over Bt369 million annually, with each manta ray potentially worth a million or more baht per year over its long lifetime of 40 or more years.

Last Wednesday night, at the Retro Live Cafe, at the Queen Sirikit Convention Centre, where CITES was held, a manta ray reception was held. At that event, Vinit Rungpheung, director of the Promotional Material Products Division of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, told CITES delegates that manta rays are very important to Thailand's lucrative dive tourism industry and the Thai fishermen do not target manta rays.

Dive operators in the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea, however, have witnessed illegal fishing for manta rays in Thai national marine parks, and have reported steep declines in manta ray sightings. Additionally, as manta rays are highly migratory animals that swim into other national and international waters, fishing of manta rays outside of Thailand can also have a large impact on manta ray populations in Thailand.

Thailand stands to benefit from a CITES listing because of tourism, but stands to benefit more if all Asean countries regulate the manta ray trade in their waters. Because manta rays are a migratory ocean species, a CITES listing is needed to ensure the regulation of trade, and that other states establish a permit trading system for mantas. Otherwise, even if Thailand were to protect its own tourism industry by protecting mantas in Thai waters, they could be slaughtered and collected for trade when they pass through neighboring Asean waters. Hence, Thailand also has an interest in ensuring other Asean countries support the proposal too.

Wiith the listing of the manta ray on Appendix II of CITES, all member countries would take an important step towards sustainable use and conservation of an iconic and vulnerable marine species.

Dr Stamps Howard is president of Wildlife Technology and Guy Stevens is founding director of The Manta Trust.


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