Plastic in the ocean doesn’t degrade or disappear; it just breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics and nanoplastics. Manta rays feed on nutritious, microscopic animals like plankton, fish eggs, and larvae that they filter from seawater. They have no way to differentiate between microplastics and food. Even if they could, researchers have found that plankton also ingest microplastics.
Microplastics can easily absorb pollutants from the surrounding environment. These toxins, known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), can leach into the tissues of living animals. Over time, manta rays experience higher concentrations of these toxins as they consume more microplastics and microplastic-rich plankton.
Plastic can be up to one million times more toxic than the surrounding environment. Once ingested, POPs can interfere with body processes, get passed onto offspring, and impact reproduction, severely interfering with efforts to recover their populations.
Manta ray meat has very little nutritional value, but Chinese medicine has placed great value on a very small part of these ocean giants: the gill plate. Practitioners make unsubstantiated claims that consuming dried and crushed manta ray gill plates can detoxify human blood and help cure everything from chicken pox to cancer.
Despite these unfounded claims, just one kilogram (a little over two pounds) of dried gill plate can be worth up to $500. It’s estimated that a mature manta ray can supply up to 7 kilograms (or 15 pounds). Manta meat is also considered a cheap alternative to shark meat in shark fin soup. Despite the risks, poachers find manta rays worth the hunt. Even when hauled up by commercial fishermen as bycatch, manta rays prove profitable and are harvested.
Manta rays only reach sexual maturity between 8 and 10 years old, giving birth to just one pup every 2 to 5 years—another reason why their populations have been decimated by overfishing. They’re literally being pulled out of the ocean faster than they can reproduce.
This kind of targeted overfishing is a pervasive and dangerous trend in the commercial fishing industry. Once a valuable fish stock is depleted, other species are targeted until they, too, are wiped out. Even with robust protections in place, it will take decades for manta ray populations to recover from this unsustainable exploitation.
Entanglement and bycatch, a word used to describe animals that are caught unintentionally, are the result of rampant overfishing in the commercial fishing industry. Manta rays migrate vast distances across tropical and sub-tropical areas of the ocean, leaving them especially vulnerable to indiscriminate fishing gear like long lines, gill nets, and drift nets.
Entanglement is an especially potent threat to manta ray populations. These animals must swim continuously to keep water moving over their gills to breathe, but they can’t swim backward. When they get tangled in fishing or mooring lines, they attempt to free themselves by twisting, turning, and somersaulting, which only makes the problem worse. If they can’t get free, they drown. Their struggle will sometimes break the line, but this often leads to a longer, slower death by infection or starvation.
Manta rays migrate across vast distances, often through areas with a high volume of maritime traffic. They’re also often found at the surface where large amounts of plankton float. Boat strikes are a common occurrence that frequently cause serious or even fatal injuries.
Manta rays are commonly found near coral reefs, which serve as “cleaning stations” where certain fish species remove parasites that collect on their bodies. These sites are often popular tourist attractions and the sheer volume of people and boats in the water can cause stress and dangerous shifts in normal behavior patterns.
Habitat loss and destruction, such as the degradation of coral reefs, can disrupt feeding patterns, reproductive behavior, and cleaning station behavior—all of which pose a threat to the survival of manta rays.
In February 2019, we partnered with the Oceanic Preservation Society to remove plastic from ocean habitats, raise awareness about the plight of manta rays through Oscar-winning documentaries, address threats to their population, secure protections, and help rebuild their populations globally.
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