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Graham Hill (The Deep) measures a Manta Ray.

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On a mission for the sharks of Sudan

February 20th, 2013

by Ben Jones

During a recent four-week mission to the Dungonab Bay Marine Park a group of scientists completed the first phase of a major conservation project to protect one of the ocean’s most endangered species.

Preliminary data suggest that Dungonab marine park may be effective for the protection of manta rays

It was the first time scientists have been deployed in the Sudanese Red Sea to help safeguard the future of the endangered manta ray, prepare the road for future missions on Sudan’s shark populations and support the development of marine protected areas.

Carrying out state-of-the-art fieldwork, 22 manta rays were tagged and 40 monitors installed across 130 kilometres of seabed by a team of experts from Equipe Cousteau and The Deep - lead by marine biologists from the University of Windsor and Ocean Tracking Network.

The field research began following years of work to secure required permits, scientific equipment and expertise. The work is carried out in Red Sea due to its global importance for marine conservation – it harbours some of the most diverse marine communities, unique animal species and is one of the few near pristine habitats left on the planet. 

Monitoring the species will generate essential baseline information on the manta ray populations and produce the critical foundation block in establishing an effective conservation strategy to protect this globally iconic species. Manta rays are highly vulnerable, and are designated as a near-threatened species; populations grow very gradually and are slow to recover once depleted.

Working alongside local representatives of the Wildlife Conservation General Administration, The Red Sea State Government and local fishermen, a team of a dozen experts successfully and humanely tagged several manta rays with satellite, acoustic and GPS tags. 

For the first time ever in the world, internal implantation of acoustic tags and dorsal fin attachments of satellite tags was used. Tagged manta rays will be followed through an acoustic monitor array established during the mission. Satellite tags will allow the scientific team to track manta rays movements on a regional scale and genetic sampling of a large number of individuals will help to better understand species and population structure. 

To date, the satellite-tagged manta rays have remained in a relatively small area within the boundaries of the Dungonab Marine Park, but have made larger movements to regions where they were not previously observed. This preliminary data suggest that Dungonab may be an effective marine park for the protection of this species and their daily movements will continue to be tracked for the next 10 months.

Initial genetic analyses have surprisingly shown that many of the manta rays could potentially be giant mantas (M. birostris) rather than the coastal manta (M. alfredi) as previously documented. The largest manta ray measured during this first expedition had an impressive wingspan of 3.61 metres.

The senior aquarist at Hull-based marine conservation charity The Deep stated that;

“During the first leg of this pioneering project, we installed research equipment, studied manta rays and examined feeding sites. This is a monumental step forward in the conservation of this rare and endangered species. We are looking forward to returning later in the year to carry out essential maintenance of the ground-breaking technology and analyse initial results to help protect this important animal and the region.”

The expert team will return to Sudan once a year over the next four years to collect data on this key component of the world’s marine biodiversity on which little is known. A second field mission is planned for early 2013, focused on threatened shark species in the region, grey reef and scalloped hammerhead sharks.

Because certain sharks and ray species are facing global human threats, a success story in the Sudanese Red Sea provides a ray of hope for our better understanding and protection of these magnificent animals. 

Tarik Chekchak, Director for Science and Environment at Equipe Cousteau said:

“At the present time, it is extremely rare to hear reports that shark and ray populations in a given region are in good health. Sudan remains one of the unique global hotspots on earth where this statement holds true. But Sudan's shark and ray populations remain under threat from human impacts and could very quickly follow the way of other regional populations – from healthy to endangered in a matter of years. Their conservation and management is therefore of both a regional and a global priority. In addition, the project will have direct long-term benefits for the entire ecosystem on which this species depends and for the local people.”

The manta ray conservation work in Sudan also involves institutions such as the Red Sea University, the Wildlife Administration, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Regional Dive operators and other local stakeholders creating an exchange of skills and competencies to forge sustainability for management of marine resources. The information will also be utilised to initiate sustainable and regulated ecotourism related activities to benefit the local Sudanese population.

Ben Jones is Senior Aquarist at The Deep in Hull and is part of the team carrying out conservation work to help protect the endangered manta ray population in the Red Sea. He has nine years of experience in working closely with large marine animals.

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