As you might guess, based on their relatively flat bodies and distinctive, swooping fins, manta rays (Manta birostris) are closely related to sharks. Growing as long as 8 meters (around 25 feet) from tip to tip and weighing more than 1 ½ metric tons, these migratory swimmers—which live around the world in temperate and tropical waters—are hard to miss.
Their conspicuous appearance also makes manta rays easy targets for fishermen.
In some parts of the world, where they are considered a commercial species, manta rays are being overfished for their meat, skin, fins, and other body parts.
While other regions don’t consider manta rays a commercial species, the animals’ size and habit of swimming near the surface make them the victim of by-catch—the accidental, and often careless, killing of species that aren’t actively being fished. These fishing-related activities are the main reasons why manta rays are classified as “near threatened” by the IUCN.
Ecuador, which counts many biodiversity-rich ecosystems as part of its territory, is in a unique position to help protect rays. Studies conducted by the Ecuadorian government and the nonprofit Equilibrio Azul, with support from Conservation International (CI), show that Ecuador’s Isla de la Plata—a tiny, off-coast island in Machalilla National Park—is an important meeting place for manta rays. The animals congregate annually to reproduce, feed, and rest.
The country also has ecological and economic reasons to protect manta rays. Because they tend to feed in ecologically thriving areas, their presence is a key indicator of health for many marine ecosystems. And because manta rays are unusually friendly with humans—often swimming right alongside divers—they’re a major driver of tourism.
“Their protection is fundamental for the conservation of nature and human well-being,” says Luis Suárez, director of CI-Ecuador.
Happily, in addition to Manta birostris, four species from the closely related Mobula (devil ray) genus are protected by the new Ecuadorian rules. All four species live in Ecuadorian waters, and many are hunted commercially—making their protection vital. With Ecuador’s actions, there is now a legal instrument in place to prohibit the capture of all of these species.
All in all, this latest news is a big step forward for conservation—and just one of the many steps CI is taking in Ecuador to ensure the protection of a country teeming with biodiversity. Read more about our efforts here.