Moby the Manta Ray Part 2: How I Am Alike and Different From My Cousins the Sharks

Moby the Manta Ray & his Shark cousins
Manta Ray (photo by Cherilyn Jose)

Sharks, rays, and skates are part of a group of fish known as elasmobranchs. There are many ways in which I am the same as my cousins, the sharks and rays. All elasmobranchs do not have any bones. We are made cartilage, which is the same flexible material that human noses and external ear flaps are made of. Like sharks, I have a rigid dorsal fin, but mine is situated more to the rear. If you were to pet a shark (I do not recommend it!) you would immediately notice their denticles. Denticles are little teeth embedded in an elasmobranch’s skin. If you ran your hand from a shark’s head to tail, then their skin would feel very smooth. If you ran your hand from tail to head, then their skin would feel rough like sandpaper. These denticles make sharks’ bodies very streamlined so they can move quickly and quietly through the water.

Most rays have a mouth on their ventral (belly) side, and eyes on the top of their head so they can see when buried in the sand. My mouth is at the front of my body so I can open it wide to filter plankton from the seawater around me. My eyes are on the side of my head, and at the base of where my head fins are fused to my body. The length of our head fins is in proportion to how wide our bodies are.

Manta rays do vary in one special way from our shark and ray cousins, as we have the highest brain to body ratio of any of them! In fact, we have the largest brain of any fish in the ocean! It takes a certain amount of brain power to figure out where to migrate to, and to make repeat visits to those hotspots year after year. Reef manta rays need to remember where their favorite cleaning stations are! We can recognize individual divers, and we are smart enough to know when they are trying to help us, and we stay still. Often we get caught in an anchor line, mooring line, or fishing line since our head fins automatically close when brushed. I have seen, or heard stories about, many humans cutting off any line or hook stuck to a manta ray. For more information on manta rays and why we need your help, see previous blog entry on me, and visit Manta Ray of Hope

Moby the Manta Ray: I Am Not a Devilfish! Part 1

Moby the Manta Ray
Manta Ray (photo by Cherilyn Jose)

Hello, my name is Moby and I am a manta ray (Manta birostris). Despite the unfortunate nickname humans have given me, “devilfish,” I am quite a gentle and graceful giant. My wingspan can be up to 25 feet (7.6 meters) and I can weigh up to 2,900 pounds (1,300 kilograms)! The devilfish name came about as my head (cephalic) fins look like devil horns when they are curled up. But much of the time I am feeding and my head fins are unfurled to help funnel seawater into my gills. Despite my size, I only eat tiny microscopic-sized plankton that I filter through my gills. I use my gills not only to breathe, but they also act like sieves to scoop out my meals from the surrounding seawater. Although SCUBA divers often do not like cloudy water, I love it as it usually means that it is full of food for me! Because I like cloudy water full of yummy things like fish eggs, (and other spawn related products, use your imagination!) I am highly migratory. There is one species of Manta Ray (Manta alfredi), like those that live off the main island of Hawaii, that stays mainly in one area. But I like the thrill of the open ocean and I have a knack of knowing where and when fish and invertebrates will spawn.

I am a ray, which means I am related to sharks, as well as other rays like stingrays and bat rays. But, as you can see from my picture or from videos, I flap my wings and glide gracefully through the water, and I only rarely rest on the bottom. Other rays have stingers near the base of their tail, bury themselves in the sand to hide from predators, and ambush their prey. I do not have a stinger on my tail, as I rely on my speed and agility to out swim any predators, which include sharks and orcas (killer whales).

Unfortunately, my gills are not just valuable to me. Humans have begun to hunt me and my friends on an ocean wide basis mainly for our gill rakers for use in a new controversial formula used in Traditional Chinese Medicine . Sometimes, but not always, they use the rest of our bodies for cheap shark fin soup “filler.” Hunting me and my kind almost solely for my gills is so wasteful, just as hunting sharks just for their fins, or elephants just for their ivory tusks is also very wasteful, not to mention mean! A female manta ray over her lifetime will give birth to as many pups (16) as a great white shark does in a single litter (14). Great white sharks are already becoming endangered, and I hope that I do not have to worry about that too! Some countries protect me in their waters, but most of the time I am in international waters where I am not protected. Please visit Manta Ray of Hope or WildAid to see how you can help me and my kind!

Letter to California Governor Jerry Brown in support of AB 376

shark fin ban & finning
taken at Monterey Bay Aquarium by Cherilyn Jose

Dear Governor Jerry Brown,
As a lifelong California resident, Chinese-American, and Marine Biologist, I urge you to sign AB 376 (The Shark Protection Act) into law. The shark fin ban has nothing to do with racism; it is solely an issue of sustainability. More than 73 million sharks a year are brutally slaughtered by having their fins cut off and the still alive shark is thrown back into the ocean to die a slow agonizing death. Shark finning is a wasteful practice that only fulfills the need for a perceived luxury item known as shark fin soup. Sharks are at the very top of the food chain and when they disappear, every organism down to the tiniest of plankton is affected-including all the seafood we eat. Sharks already face declining numbers due to being caught as bycatch from the often overzealous fishing industry, due to a reduced food supply because of overfishing, due to global warming and the ensuing ocean acidification, and due to pollution from garbage as well as chemicals. Let us cross off shark finning from that long list of threats. Thousands of sharks will be saved a year from this law, and as other states and nations follow California’s lead, eventually millions of sharks will be saved for future generations to respect and protect.
Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely,
Cherilyn Chin Jose

send your letter today!
update: as of October 2011, California has banned the sale, purchase or possession shark fins, and restaurants have until January of 2013 to use up their existing stock

Domino the Whale Shark on Shark Finning

Domino the Whale Shark (picture by Cherilyn Chin)

The Poster Shark for Shark Finning

Hello, my name is Domino, and I am a Whale Shark. I think I should be the poster animal for the ending of shark finning. It might be hard to relate to other sharks that are (supposedly) so menacing, ruthless, and with a mouthful of razor sharp teeth, but look at me! I was named after the gentle giants of the sea, the whales. Whale sharks are every bit as magnificent as whales, yet most humans have not heard of us.

Are you a whale, or a shark?

Humans inevitably ask, are you a whale? Or are you a shark? I am unequivocally a shark. In fact, I am the world’s largest fish as well as the world’s largest shark. My mouth is full of teeth, but my teeth are only 1/12th of an inch (3 mm) long and I don’t even use them to eat! I only eat tiny, microscopic plankton that I filter from the water around me.

I’m unique!

I can grow to be more than 40 feet (12 meters) long and weigh more than 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg). I also have a unique pattern of spots interspersed with occasional stripes that is not found on any other animal! In fact no other whale shark shares my unique polka dot and stripe pattern. It’s my fingerprint, to put it into human terms.

My “Squished” Head

I have a unique body shape, as my head is dorsoventrally compressed. This means that my head is “squished” flat, almost like a pancake, with my 4 foot wide mouth in front. Most sharks have the distinctive sharp snout with a mouth underneath their head that you picture when you hear the name “shark.”

How I am like other sharks

I share some other characteristics with the “other” sharks, like I do not have any bones in my body. My body is made up of cartilage, which is found in human ears and noses. Like other sharks, my thick skin is made up of denticles, or very tiny teeth, which makes our skin rough like sandpaper. These denticles make us sharks very streamlined, and able to swim very swiftly and quietly through the water. My 4 inch (10.2 cm) skin is also the thickest of any animal on earth!

Shark Finning

One very important characteristic I share with all other sharks is the worldwide market for our fins. These are turned into a dish humans eat called shark fin soup. I was flattered–for all of a second–to find out that my fins are highly sought after because they are the largest of any shark. Well, the basking shark has larger fins, but less of it is edible. Whale shark fins are made into the most expensive bowls of shark fin soup. Our meat supposedly tastes and feels like tofu, but most of the time the fishing boats don’t have enough room for our large bodies.

Not only is shark finning barbaric (often only the fins are sliced off a shark and it is tossed back still alive into the ocean to die a slow death), but it is wasteful as the whole shark is not utilized in any way. It’s sad to swim by a once powerful shark that is now unable to swim without its fins.

The Food Chain

I get angry because removing such large numbers of top level predators from the food chain affects the availability of my food (the microscopic plants and animals at the bottom of the food chain). All the seafood humans harvest from the ocean is affected. Killing up to 100 million sharks a year is not sustainable! Although the food chain is very complex, there is an elegant order to it. It is like the food pyramid humans follow for eating. My food (the plankton) is at the base of the pyramid, and sharks are at the very top. The ocean could not sustain having as many sharks as sardines, so there are very few of us sharks to begin with.

I’m a shark but…

I lament being categorized with great white sharks and their menacing reputation. They have their very important place at the top of the food chain, but it is guilt by association. If humans only knew that shark finning included killing gentle and magnificent whale sharks such as myself, I think they could begin to understand our plight. Little by little I think humans are beginning to protect us by banning shark finning in some waters, creating shark sanctuaries, and banning the import, sale and distribution of shark fins. Even though all I share with the whales is my name, size, and the fact that some of us are plankton feeders, I think it is fortuitous. I hope someday humans will stop hunting us for our large fins, and start to revere us like whales. We are just as amazing, and just as gentle.

To see how you can help visit COARE or APAOHA
Also see Snorkeling with Whale Sharks off of Cancun, Mexico
And Domino the Whale Shark Gets Freed From a Net!

Banning shark fin sales in California: A Chinese-American Marine Biologist’s View

great white shark picture
Great White Shark (photo by Cherilyn Chin Jose)

I am a Chinese-American and a marine biologist and I fully support California Assembly Bill (AB) 376 to ban the sale and distribution of shark fins in California.  Hawaii has already banned the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins.  I have eaten (and enjoyed) dozens of bowls of shark fin soup in my lifetime but I will no longer do that.  My only regret so far in life is that I chose to serve shark fin soup (instead of melon or white fungus soup) at my wedding because of the strong symbolism behind serving it. 

You might be thinking that since I’m a marine biologist *of course* she’ll be on the side of the sharks or any other creature of the oceans.  But while I respect sharks and their role in the ocean food chain, they are not among my favorite animals of the ocean.  I think that Peter Benchley, the author of the book and movie “Jaws,” really made me realize how important sharks are to humans alive.  Although he is responsible for the way most of us fear and vilify sharks, he was also one of their strongest proponents.  He wrote a book called “Shark Trouble” in 2002.  In it he wrote a fictional tale of what would happen to a self sustaining seaside village if sharks were taken from their coral reefs.  In this tale, foreign fishing vessels removed the sharks from a coral reef community in a matter of days.  But the devastating effects lasted much longer as the entire economy of this fictional village collapsed, and the native fishermen did not even start the downward spiral of their economy!  But soon fiction may turn into non-fiction. It has been observed that octopus populations increase once shark populations decrease, and the octopuses end up eating lots of lobsters or crabs from fishermen’s traps! One real life study concluded that the decline of big sharks leads to an increase of small elasmobranchs (sharks and their relatives like rays and skates) that feast on the shellfish that humans eat, like scallops and oysters. 

It is estimated 70 million sharks are killed each year for their fins.  Many sharks do not reach sexual maturity until they are 7 years old, and some large sharks do not reach sexual maturity until their 20’s.  Even then the females only have a few surviving pups.  Even in utero (in the womb) fetal sharks will eat their own brothers and sisters! 

Illegal shark fin sales around the world number at least 1 billion dollars and is (supposedly) second only to drugs like marijuana in illegal trafficking.  Those numbers can certainly be disputed as it is impossible to really track illegal sales, but the point is that in many developing countries, a single shark fin can feed a fisherman’s family for months.  These poor fishermen are not aware that 39 species of sharks are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a threatened (one step away from being endangered) species and that the killing of one shark today means no more sharks tomorrow.  They rarely just kill one, and the whole shark is rarely fully utilized because of the limited space on the fishing vessels.  The sharks are targeted specifically when possible because of the amount of money the fins are worth.  Even the gentle, slow moving Whale Shark, that eats only microscopic plankton, is targeted!  But the consumers of shark fin soup are not living in poverty and can understand that killing the top level predators of any ecosystem cannot last forever.  When was the last time you ate a bear, lion or bald eagle?  These are top level predators on land and humans know that eating them would not be sustainable.  But because the oceans seem so vast and with an endless amount of fish, humans outside the ocean conservation community have yet to grasp that the wildlife supply of the oceans is not endless.  Over 90% of the large fish populations, including sharks, tuna, marlin, swordfish, halibut, and cod are gone (see Scientific American article). Gone forever.  While the supermarket freezer cases are full of fresh fish and you can still order tuna sushi at your local Japanese restaurant, there does not seem any urgency to conserving any fish species.

Some countries around the world (United States included) ban shark finning in their waters.  Palau even created a shark sanctuary in which it is illegal to catch any sharks.  But all nations only have jurisdiction on the 200 nautical mile Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) from their shores.  The rest is international waters.  Often large fleets from foreign countries will swoop in on a developing countries’ waters and take all the fish (including sharks) and then leave.  Some developed countries will pay less developed countries money to let them fish in their waters, but this happens less often then you might hope.

There is much more to this discussion and I know there are always two sides to every story.  I hope that reading my side of the story will at least help you understand why someone would want to stop eating shark fin soup, let alone live in a state like California that wants to ban the sale and distribution of shark fins.  Respect the facts, the opinions of others and follow your own heart.