Northern Manta Rays: Protecting Clamshell Rays – Oceanographic

In 2021 Ulster Wildlife’s Sea Deep Project recorded the first juvenile flapper ray in Northern Ireland; an exciting discovery that may suggest that flapper rays are breeding in the area. We caught up with Project Officer Erin McKeown to talk about how clamshell ray conservation can benefit from angling and what the sighting could mean for conservation efforts.

Often referred to as the “northern manta ray”, the largest ray in the world can reach lengths of up to 3m. Just like so many species in the oceans today, flapper rays are critically endangered after decades of overfishing. In Northern Ireland, however, an exciting discovery made headlines in 2021: an extremely rare juvenile flapper ray was recorded by Ulster Wildlife’s Sea Deep Project.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): What makes clamshell skates so special?

Erin McKeown (EM): The clamshell skates are really impressive. At Sea Deep, we affectionately refer to clamshell rays as ‘Northern Manta Rays’, as they are such an iconic species. It is the largest skate in the world, reaching 3 m in length. He can live to a phenomenal age of 100 years. Unfortunately, the flapper ray is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, and further declines risk the species becoming extinct.

Om: How did the species end up being classified as “critically endangered”?

EM: The flapper ray has historically been overfished, both commercially and recreationally. In fact, the species was the first clear case of a fish brought to the brink of extinction by overfishing, according to Brander, 1981. It was a popular sport fish due to its size. Prior to 1970, angling for most species of sharks and rays followed a “catch and kill” procedure. This overwhelming fishing pressure has led to a drastic decline in species. Additionally, the clamshell ray, like many other sharks and rays, exhibits slow life history characteristics, such as late maturity and small litter sizes. Therefore, it can take a long time for populations to recover if they are decimated. These factors, along with several other threats in our modern seas, mean that the flapper ray needs urgent protection to conserve the species.

Om: How exactly did you record the juvenile clamshell skate last year?

EM: Sea Deep is supported by a volunteer fishing community based in Northern Ireland. We train them in best practice in shark and ray capture, tagging and release techniques, so they can effectively collect data on local species while at sea. juvenile clamshell was recorded in April 2021, off the east coast of Northern Ireland and was a first for the project. The juvenile was caught by a licensed Sea Deep fisherman, licensed to collect data on this critically endangered species under the NI Wildlife Ordinance (1985). We did not mark this catch to minimize stress as the juveniles are at a more vulnerable stage of life. Instead, we recorded other information, such as the species’ location, sex, and general health.

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