Green Pages

Birds of the Sea

Endangered rays are a piece of TCI’s living history.

By Sydney O’Brien, Waterfront Assistant,
The School for Field Studies Center for Marine Resource Studies, South Caicos

The waters of the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) are picturesquely colored in different shades of blue, green, and turquoise. and abundantly filled with life. The whitespotted eagle ray, known by the scientific name Aetobatus narinari, is one of the most beloved residents of the TCI, as well as the entire tropical Atlantic.

Eagle rays are often found in pairs or groups.

Eagle rays are related to sharks and other ray species within the class Chondrichthyes, the cartilaginous fish. Living in the open water over the continental shelf, these rays can be found from the surface to depths of 60 meters. Much of this area is popular for activities such as boating, snorkeling, or diving, so a lucky observer may view an eagle ray passing by the reef, or perhaps even breaching the surface. When boating, keep an eye out for moving dark patches. While snorkeling or diving, you might be able to see groups of these rays up close as they glide across your path. 

Many of the sea creatures calling the Turks & Caicos region home are facing a number of anthropogenic threats. The habitats in which they reside are often degraded by pollution, habitat loss, and high levels of human disturbance. These activities can have dire consequences for marine species, especially rays who have only a few offspring at a time. The whitespotted eagle ray has experienced vast reductions in population size over the last 30 years (three generation lengths), estimated at around 50–79%. Because of this, A. narinari has been reclassified from Near Threatened to Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with a population trend of “decreasing” as of July 28, 2020.

Whitespotted eagle rays are often caught in fisheries both intentionally and as bycatch. Rays are also susceptible to being entangled in active fishing nets, as well as ghost nets (nets in the ocean that are no longer in use). In the TCI, there is not a large market for eagle ray meat or products. Yet, they are still impacted by the seafood industry, and protecting these creatures now can provide financial gains from ecotourism for years to come.

Between 2009 and 2015, researchers Aaron Henderson, Jan Lupton, Kathryn Flowers, and Demian Chapman from The School for Field Studies on South Caicos and Stony Brook University in New York, assessed the movement and behavior of this species using photographic identification. They were able to identify 165 individuals, many of which were sighted multiple times over the six years of the study, often near or at the original site in which they were photographed. From these data, they concluded that the eagle rays found around South Caicos can either be permanent residents of the area or transient visitors, using the area for part of the year then migrating elsewhere before returning. 

Thus, it appears that within this species there are both nomadic and sedentary individuals. Another study based out of Florida came to a similar conclusion using a method known as passive acoustic telemetry to view the movement patterns of the eagle rays in their waters. They attached transmitters to 54 rays in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast and found that the majority of rays tagged in the Gulf displayed migratory behaviors, while most Atlantic coast rays were residents. 

Whether the rays of the TCI are migratory or Belongers (the term for a resident of the TCI), it seems much of their time is spent in local waters. Therefore, local conservation efforts could be highly effective in increasing their populations. In order to aid eagle ray recovery, bycatch of eagle rays needs to be reduced on a global scale, while harvest and trade of eagle ray products must be monitored both domestically and internationally to track how many are consumed each year. 

Unfortunately, many global fisheries are unmanaged and difficult to regulate. This is not likely to change without a widespread shift in human behavior, but starting with your own habits can help. Cutting back on seafood consumption is not necessarily feasible for all people, but if possible, try to purchase seafood locally from small and sustainable businesses that make an effort to prevent bycatch, or catch your own fish with approved gear. 

Fishers can help by not fishing in Marine Protected Areas and by releasing any sharks or rays caught. Release these animals as soon as you believe you have hooked one, even if that means cutting the line (the hook will eventually rust away). Often even the act of reeling in a shark or ray can be fatal for the individual, and death does not always occur immediately but sometimes hours later. If you do catch one, make an effort to keep it in the water while releasing it to not add the stress of being lifted onto the boat for prolonged periods. Anyway, a true fisher gets into the water to take a photo of their catch! Fishers can also use inline circle hooks which can help improve survival rates of released fish without significantly diminishing catch rates. Finally, using hook and line or spear guns rather than nets can also massively reduce the likelihood of bycatch.

Tourists in the TCI can help eagle rays too. Supporting ecotourism such as snorkeling or diving excursions with the intention of spotting eagle rays can provide local financial incentives for protecting these magnificent creatures. There are numerous dive and snorkel operations spread throughout the Islands, so grab your gear and explore. Wherever you dive or snorkel, always remember to respect the local wildlife and encourage others around you to do the same, keep a generous distance between you and the rays, and never corner or touch a wild animal.

Valuing the eagle rays and other cartilaginous fish in the TCI is not a new concept, as many indigenous cultures have long treasured these species for both their intrinsic value and their cultural significance. In the Caribbean, the Lucayan Taínos lived a life in and around the ocean, catching what was needed to sustain themselves, and using most, if not all parts of the animal. The Taínos often encountered sharks and rays while fishing, and had at least four words for sharks, as well as naming the Southern Stingray (Libuza) and the whitespotted eagle ray (Chucho).

Shark and ray artifacts have been found in the archaeological remains of their communities. As cartilaginous fish, most body parts do not preserve well in fossil records, but shark teeth, eagle ray grinding plates, and ray tail spines are commonly unearthed. Often the barbed spines of the rays were used for hunting, fishing, and as weaponry for battle. Shark and ray skin was used as sandpaper or for grinding cassava into a fine grain. Shark and ray meat was consumed, and other parts were used for tools or even decoration. 

Today, the people of the TCI occasionally harvest these species, but with a large market available for economic growth through tourism, there is an incentive to shift away from consumption to conservation: There is often more money to be made catering to tourists that come to the TCI to see these magnificent creatures than in their harvest.

Eagle rays are a piece of living history that tie the people of the TCI to the original inhabitants of this land, and with greater protection and responsible fishing this heritage can be shared for generations to come.

To learn more about the The School for Field Studies’ projects on South Caicos, go to http://www.fieldstudies.org/tci.



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