In the wild, a fight between a shark and a ray usually doesn’t end well for the ray. The same is true for rays in the world of conservation. Although several shark sanctuaries include protection from commercial fishing for both sharks and rays, no sanctuary has been designated exclusively for rays – until now.
Home to the second largest barrier reef in the world and over 20 species of rays, Belize just this month became the first country to create a ray sanctuary. And for good reason. On any given snorkel or dive, you’re likely to see multiple ray species – a whitespotted eagle ray, a yellow round ray, a southern stingray, or an Atlantic chupare. And if you’re really lucky, you may even encounter a threatened species like a manta ray, smalltooth sawfish, or Ticon cownose ray.
Thanks to Paul G. Allen, Global FinPrint has been contributing data to the ray revolution for the past couple years. Belize used these data in their decision-making process, and it is clear that without the support from Allen, the establishment of a ray sanctuary would not have been possible.
We all should celebrate the recent protective measures that focus on sustainable shark fishing or shark sanctuaries. Though related to sharks, rays have been overlooked, possibly due to a lack of public interest and funding or because of their remote habitats. What’s most shocking about this is that as a group, rays are more threatened with extinction than sharks, and even some of the most expensive fins in the “shark” fin trade come from wedgefish, guitarfish, and sawfish – all of which are rays. Rays are also likely playing a key role in maintaining ecosystem function – as tasty snacks for larger predators and as bottom feeders. Rays churn up sediment when searching for food, releasing otherwise unavailable nutrients into the surrounding ecosystem.
When you hear the word ray, you probably envision a graceful manta ray or a cownose ray you once fed at the local aquarium, yet there are more than 633 species of ray (and counting). We have many species to thank for a bourgeoning tourism industry worth millions of dollars in several nations. And it is through this growing industry that Belize has decided to shine a “ray” of light on conservation.
This innovative strategy ensures that neighboring nations will not exploit Belize’s ray populations and that no commercial fishing effort can be established within 200 nautical miles off its coastline. The ray sanctuary does not threaten Belizean fisher livelihoods; any ray accidentally caught in fishing gear can be released alive. Moving forward, we must work with the local community to make sure the ray sanctuary continues to benefit both the people and wildlife of Belize.
In 1990, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz helped Belize protect just over 150 square miles of jaguar habitat in the world’s first jaguar sanctuary. With the addition of the world’s first ray sanctuary, Belize has blossomed as a global leader for the preservation of threatened species on land and at sea.
Just as camera traps have helped scientists monitor jaguar populations in Belize, baited remote underwater video surveys conducted by Global FinPrint in Belize have shown us that ray populations are doing well and are worthy of protection. Belize’s conservation action is the start of a ray revolution, or “rayvolution.”
Read more about how Vulcan Technology is helping the Global FinPrint team implement machine learning to count sharks and rays more quickly.