A sea turtle spots a plastic bag floating among the waves. To him, it looks like a jellyfish, its general shape and consistency swaying and catching the light in just the right way. He swims toward it and ingests the bag in one gulp, satisfying his hunger, and then goes on his away. In actuality, that plastic bag lines his gut, causing digestive blockages and the sea turtle’s eventual death from starvation.
This story is all too common in the marine environment. In fact, a study estimated that more than half the world’s sea turtles and a staggering 90% of sea birds had ingested some form of plastic. Earlier this year, 13 sperm whales washed up in Germany and their necropsies revealed stomachs full of plastic waste including a 43-foot-long shrimp fishing net, a plastic car engine cover and a plastic bucket. Plastic and other debris, including discarded fishing lines and nets (also called “ghost nets”), are not just ingested, but also account for thousands of casualties. Sharks, whales and mantas that get tangled up in nets either suffer life-threatening injuries from their attempts to escape or they simply remain trapped eventually drowning to death.
International wildlife trafficking is worth an estimated $10-20 billion per year annually, making it one of the world’s largest illicit trades after illegal drugs, arms and human trafficking. The United States is a chief consumer of wildlife products (both legal and illegal), but a recent poll commissioned by WildAid found 80 percent of Americans know little or nothing about illegal wildlife trade within the United States. As a result, travelers often are unaware that products they bring into the United States are prohibited.
Illegal fishing continues to pressure Ecuador’s numerous protected areas and fisheries. Funding for conservation efforts on mainland Ecuador is minimal, and due to recent earthquakes, protected area managers have even fewer resources to carry out patrols that protect their marine spaces. WildAid’s work in Ecuador is more important than ever to prevent exploitation of its unique marine life as we celebrate World Oceans Day.
Machalilla National Park along coastal Ecuador is one of the world’s most important sites for manta aggregation as it is home to the largest population of Giant Manta Rays (Manta birostris), estimated at 1,500 individuals. It’s also home to five species of sea turtles, 20 species of whales and dolphins, hammerhead and whale sharks, and countless species of fish and coral reefs.
Listed by the IUCN as “Vulnerable,” the primary threat to manta species is unsustainable fishing. As manta rays have few natural predators, their recent decline is due in large part to direct human predation, driven by the growing demand for their gills or death as bycatch. Compounding matters, mantas are among the slowest to reproduce of all sharks and rays, usually birthing one or two offspring every few years. Their low reproduction rates mean that mantas cannot sustain or survive commercial fishing for long.
In a significant move to save one of the world’s most-treasured marine animals, Peru has approved strong regulations to protect the giant oceanic manta ray, a species particularly vulnerable to fishing activity.
Manta ray populations are under serious threat worldwide from fisheries targeting mantas for their gills and meat, and from accidental entanglement in nets and fishing line. Peru has one of the largest remaining populations of giant oceanic manta rays. Last spring, a giant oceanic manta caught in a gill net by a fisherman in Peru made international headlines, sparking calls to strengthen protections for mantas, whose gill plates are often sold in some Asian markets for use in a “health tonic.”
As you can see in the time-lapsed video above, Chen Yingjie, a prominent local street artist committed to wildlife conservation, painted "Blue Dream" in the weeks leading up to China’s National Aquatic Wildlife Protection Awareness Month.
Last month, WildAid’s Chief China Representative, May Mei, unveiled the mural at an event in Guangzhou, one of China's largest cities, alongside prominent fisheries and agriculture officials, such as Director General of Fishery Monitoring Department of Agriculture Ministry Li Yanliang, Deputy Director of Guangdong Provincial Bureau of Marine and Fisheries Li Zhiquan, and Director of Resource and Environment Department of Fishery Zhao Yimin.
Measuring about 40 ft. x 14 ft, the mural will be displayed in various Guangzhou locations over the next year, including shopping mall squares and art zones. The mural will be further represented as 42 billboards throughout the Guangzhou subway system, with the message "Protect mantas: Say no to peng yu sai."
Of the handful of locations that account for the majority of manta fishers, the central Indonesian village of Lamakera is at the top and is considered the world’s largest manta fishing site. Villagers here have conducted traditional manta hunts for many generations, but with the arrival of the gill plate trade in the early 2000s, the community converted to diesel engines and transformed to a full-scale commercial fishery, landing over 1,000 mantas in a single season.
Since then, the fishing intensity has only increased, sending the manta population into a downward spiral. Having documented this grisly hunt, we wondered how could we possibly mobilize action to save this vanishing species before it was too late? We had to act but needed international and domestic support first to make it happen.
WildAid is proud to be an NGO member of the new United States Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, announced by the White House on Wednesday.
This partnership has three primary objectives:
Raise the public’s awareness of the scope of the wildlife trafficking crisis, including the illegal trade’s devastating impact on elephants, rhinos, tigers and other irreplaceable species, and illegal traffickers’ role in funding global corruption and terrorism;
Reduce consumer demand for wildlife and wildlife products (WildAid’s core organizational mission); and
Mobilize companies to adopt best practices to insure that their goods and services are not being utilized by illegal wildlife traffickers, and to assist in raising public awareness and reducing demand.
Over the past three decades, China’s seafood consumption has more than tripled, surpassing both Japan and the United States as the world’s largest consumer, producer and importer/exporter of fish and shellfish. High demand among a growing middle class also has fueled illegal fishing and smuggling of many protected marine species.
Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province in southern China, is a key port for seafood shipments, and a primary market for such products as manta ray gill rakers and shark fin. Local customs officers are tasked with inspecting a high volume of shipments at ports as well as surveilling markets for illegal products. To help them improve detections of illegal wildlife species, WildAid, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Guangdong Fisheries Law Enforcement recently co-hosted a training for 80 customs and enforcement officers in Guangzhou.
The main purpose of this training was to help agents to quickly identify products from eight protected species, including manta gill rakers (known as peng yu sai), shark fin and the swim bladder of the totoaba — a critically endangered fish indigenous to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The totoaba swim bladders are smuggled from Mexico.
"In all my years of filming and interacting with manta rays, I have never witnessed such an extraordinary interaction between a manta ray and a swimmer. The power and charisma of this giant manta was truly humbling!" — Shawn Heinrichs, WildAid
Last year, WildAid reported that an estimated 150,000 manta and mobula rays were killed in 2013 so their gill rakers could be sold as part of a growing trade, mostly at the markets of Guangzhou, China.
Known as peng yu sai, the gill rakers — cartilage filaments used to filter food from the water column — are not part of Traditional Chinese Medicine, but they are used in the preparation of a soup-like "health tonic." Merchants advertise a wide range of unproven health benefits and claim that peng yu sai can treat everything from skin rashes to cancer.