When surveying people’s favourite sea creatures, sharks are nearly always at the top of the list. Many more sophisticated ocean animal lovers may also champion the wonders of the massive manta ray. Very few, however, are likely to include the manta’s smaller and more elusive cousins, devil rays, among their top marine treasures. As someone who works in the shark and ray field, this comes as no surprise to me.
These often overlooked and criminally unloved relatives of the manta display very similar characteristics, but even scientists do not know a huge amount about the nine species that have been identified so far. What we do know is that they are slow growing, give birth to very few young, and are facing a severe threat to their survival from overfishing.
They also seem to think they can fly! Devil rays can be found in large aggregations, and have been known to display exhilarating feats of acrobatics that wouldn’t disgrace the Rio Olympians.
As entertaining as devil rays are, detailed information about them is extremely limited. Estimates of how many devil rays are caught around the globe each year have skyrocketed from around 1,000 tonnes in 2005 to over 6,000 tonnes in 2013. However, these statistics easily could be a substantial underestimate as they are based on data from only five countries, and the rays are notoriously difficult to identify.
While there is limited demand for devil rays as a source of food, they are highly prized for their gill plates, which the animals use to filter food out of the water, but are prized by people for tradition medicine. Mantas face the same market pressure.
Even though most people don’t know the troubled plight of devil rays, WWF and other partner organizations are fighting to save them; and we’ve already had some success. In 2014, we helped achieve international treaty protection for the rays under the Convention for Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, which has 123 member countries.
In just a few months, we will be seeking action through another treaty known as CITES, the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, which applies to over 35,000 kinds of plants and animals. We are supporting a proposal that would restrict international trade in gill plates and meat of these rare animals. And we are hopeful that the 182 CITES countries will take the action necessary to protect these embattled denizens of the deep blue sea like they did with mantas at the last meeting.
Devil rays may never be as famous as mantas or sharks, but we’ll be happy as long as they are protected for generations to come.
By Ian Campbell, WWF-Pacific Shark and Ray Specialist