Karachi, 6 March 2022: Two giant mantas, species that are a relative of the shark and sting ray, were videoed swimming along the vessel captained by Captain Samad Bilwani and shared by Zahid Maker a member of Board of Director of WWF-Pakistan in the southwest of Karachi in the Arabian Sea on Saturday.
This species, recently declared ‘endangered’ by the IUCN and added to the IUCN Red List, is known to commonly occur in Pakistan, but is now becoming extremely rare.
Last sighting of the giant manta
The last sighting of the giant manta, scientifically known as Mobula birostris, was in the offshore waters north of Churna Island in October 2016.
Although not directly targeted by fishing activities in Pakistan, a large number of the giant mantas get entangled in gillnet fisheries. However, their numbers declined over the last 20 years.
Gaint manta rays were targeted in recreational fishing
Prior to the creation of Pakistan, gaint manta rays and whale sharks were targeted in recreational fishing in the offshore waters of Cape Monz and Churna Island. Details of a number of such hunting trips are published in newspapers and journals from the era.
Rare to see two giant manta rays together
These two giant mantas were spotted in the offshore waters 50 nautical miles south of Karachi. It is extremely rare to see two giant manta rays together. Despite being relatives of sharks, giant mantas are harmless animals that feed on small shrimps which are known to occur abundantly in the offshore waters of Pakistan.
Swimming along the boat
According to Zahid Maker, it is amazing that these gentle giants encircled the boats, coming to the surface and swimming along the boat, presenting an amazing sight to behold. In many countries like Maldives, Thailand, Costa Rica, Fiji and Mozambique, recreational dives are arranged to allow swimming with giant mantas.
According to Rab Nawaz, Senior Director Conservation Biodiversity, WWF-Pakistan, mantas and mobulas are an important part of the marine ecosystem of Pakistan. In 2012, for the first time in Pakistan,
WWF-Pakistan initiated detailed research and conservation work of these important marine animals and collected information about the distribution, abundance, and biology of these animals. Taking these studies into consideration, and fearing their disappearance from Pakistan, WWF-Pakistan persuaded provincial fisheries departments to declare them species which are not allowed to be fished and marketed in Pakistan. Through these efforts, the provincial governments of Sindh and Balochistan have notified laws for the protection of these species, prohibiting the catch, landing and sale of all species of mobula and manta rays in Pakistan.
7 species of devil rays are found in Pakistan
According to Muhammad Moazzam Khan, Technical Advisor, WWF-Pakistan, seven species of devil rays are found in Pakistan including reef manta ray (Mobula alfredi), giant manta ray (Mobula birostris), long horned mobula (Mobula eregoodoo), Kuhl‟s devil ray (Mobula kuhlii), giant devil ray (Mobula mobular), Chilian devil ray (Mobula tarapacana) and bentfin devil ray (Mobula thurstoni). Of these, reef manta ray (Mobula alfredi) is the rarest and was last seen in Pakistan in 1964 when it was caught in the offshore waters of Pasni, Balochistan, whereas devil ray (Mobula mobular) used to commonly occur in Pakistan and was caught on a commercial scale.
Although there are no aimed fisheries for these gentle giants, they were frequently caught by gillneters operating in the coastal and offshore waters of Pakistan. Species of mobula and manta rays are facing serious threat of extinction because they reach sexual maturity relatively late in life, giving birth to a single offspring every few years. They do not look after or defend their young and the offspring are vulnerable when they are small and may not survive.
Habitat degradation and pollution
According to Rab Nawaz, mainly because of fishing pressure, the population of manta rays is decreasing at an alarming rate in Pakistan. Their population is also seriously affected by habitat degradation and pollution and there is a need to create awareness amongst fishermen, as well as the general public, about the protection of these species as they are important national assets and a part of marine diversity in Pakistan. Muhammad Moazzam Khan stressed the need for declaring Churna Island as a marine protected area (MPA) as the area is known to be the last abode of giant manta and other megafauna (whale shark, sunfish, whales and dolphins).