The distribution of manta rays in the western North Atlantic Ocean off the eastern United States
In 2018, the giant manta ray was listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. We integrated decades of sightings and survey effort data from multiple sources in a comprehensive species distribution modeling (SDM) framework to evaluate the distribution of giant manta rays off the eastern United States, including the Gulf of Mexico. Manta rays were most commonly detected at productive nearshore and shelf-edge upwelling zones at surface thermal frontal boundaries within a temperature range of approximately 20–30 °C. SDMs predicted highest nearshore occurrence off northeastern Florida during April, with the distribution extending northward along the shelf-edge as temperatures warm, leading to higher occurrences north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina from June to October, and then south of Savannah, Georgia from November to March as temperatures cool. In the Gulf of Mexico, the highest nearshore occurrence was predicted around the Mississippi River delta from April to June and again from October to November. SDM predictions will allow resource managers to more effectively protect manta rays from fisheries bycatch, boat strikes, oil and gas activities, contaminants and pollutants, and other threats.