Elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) are some of the most captivating yet mysterious vertebrates inhabiting our coastal ecosystems. Despite their widespread nature and capture in several fisheries, our knowledge of the conservation requirements of these fishes has been considerably lagging. This is particularly disconcerting given the ever-increasing ecological importance attributed to these species and their high vulnerability.
Driven by a concern over the growth of fisheries directed at rays without crucial knowledge of the biology and ecology of these species, we assembled a symposium at the 2013 American Elasmobranch Society (AES) annual meeting on myliobatid/rhinopterid stingrays. Known for their large-scale migrations, schooling behaviors and impressive ability to crush hard-shelled mollusks (i.e., durophagy), these stingrays have long fascinated naturalists worldwide. While research on the biology and ecology of these animals has historically lagged behind other groups of marine fishes, studies are on the rise due to the purported negative impact of some species (e.g. cownose ray Rhinoptera bonasus) on commercial shellfish. Unfortunately, the slow trickle of studies continues to impede the development of management measures for these species despite recently increased exploitation of rays by artisanal fisheries (e.g., Mexican Gulf) and the rising number of kill tournaments targeting these animals on the US East coast. The AES Symposium served as a platform for scientists to review research on these animals and make recommendations for future management. This work amounted to both a resolution on the rising cownose ray fishery on the East coast, as well as a special issue of 9 peer-reviewed papers published in Environmental Biology of Fishes.
Working with Mote Marine Laboratory, El Colegio de la Frontera de Sur (ECOSUR; MX), California Academy of Sciences, as well as a few researchers from Cuba, we have been collecting life history, genetic, and habitat use data (via satellite telemetry) on Spotted Eagle Rays from throughout the northwest Atlantic. These data are crucial to the conservation of this species, which receives protection in Florida and Bermuda, but can be exploited in the rest of their wide Atlantic range. Our long-term goal is to develop a conservation plan for this species.