Global Population Trends and Human Use Patterns of Manta and Mobula Rays
Despite being the world’s largest rays and providing significant revenue through dive tourism, little is known about the population status, exploitation and trade volume of the Mobulidae (mobulids; Manta and Mobula spp.). There is anecdotal evidence, however, that mobulid populations are declining, largely due to the recent emergence of a widespread trade for their gill rakers, which is reflected in increasing Food and Agriculture Organization landings trends. Here, we present results from two dedicated diver surveys, one from the eManta project, which includes summary observations from ninety 10°x10° regions with ∼200–62,000 dives per region, and the other from the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, which includes spatially more detailed observations from 3 regions with ∼4,000–118,000 dives per region. We show that mobulids as a group, which includes eleven species, have globally and regionally restricted distributions, typically have low sighting frequency (<1% of dives) and aggregate in only a few locations. Of the regions surveyed by divers, almost half (47%) report declining mobulid sightings over the last decade. Divers indicate that although mobulid ecotourism occurs in many regions (45% of those reported, n = 41) they are considered protected in only 32% of the regions. Mobulids being fished or sold in local markets were reported from 16% and 12% of regions, respectively, with most being adjacent to mobulid abundance hotspot and ecotourism regions (e.g. Sri Lanka, Indonesia, east Africa). Identification of regions where ecotourism and exploitation are at odds could help prioritize conservation efforts. Vulnerability analysis, using life history characteristics, indicates that Manta spp. are vulnerable to exploitation, tolerating only low fishing mortality rates; data limitations prohibited such analysis for Mobula spp. Our analyses support previous studies in showing the need for improved conservation and monitoring efforts, and suggest that international and enforceable management policies are required to prevent further population decline.