As manta ray advocates, our main hope is for future generations to experience the transformative effect of swimming with these majestic creatures. But how much longer will they roam our oceans?
In this article, we dive into the manta ray’s status related to their extinction risk, explore the most significant threats that could cause their disappearance, and discuss what we can all do to turn the tide for our favorite gentle giants.
Who Decides What Species Are Endangered or Threatened?
The assessment and designation of species as endangered or threatened involve several key entities and processes.
In the United States and globally, two crucial authorities oversee this process:
United States: the Endangered Species Act
Since 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has recognized the need to keep many native plants and animals safe, including guarding them from becoming extinct.
The ESA distinguishes two categories:
- Endangered species = species in direct danger of extinction
- Threatened species = species that are likely to become endangered in the near future.
Internationally: the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species
The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species is the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.
The website offers insights into the extinction risk status of animals, fungi, and plant species worldwide.
The IUCN uses the same categories as the Endangered Species Act (Endangered vs Threatened), but divides the threatened category further into three sub-categories:
- Critically Endangered (CR) = species that face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild
- Endangered (EN) = species that face a very high risk of extinction in the wild
- Vulnerable (VU) = species that face a high risk of extinction in the wild
Currently, there are over 150,300 species listed on The IUCN Red List, and among them, more than 42,100 species are threatened with extinction.
How many manta rays are there (worldwide)?
We lack information on the global distribution of giant manta rays due to their vast migratory patterns. Local populations of reef manta rays are estimated between 300-1500, but even this data is only available through well-maintained databases.
Along the Kona Coast, the Manta Pacific Research Foundation is the organization doing the counting. However, their catalog was established in the 90’s and many of the mantas listed have not been seen for a long time.
Here at Manta Ray Advocates, we keep track of the manta rays that show up at our manta moonlight swim activity. We also keep our own manta ray library on this website, adding and updating manta ray records and photographs when we or our readers encounter them hoping to obtain more information about their numbers and migratory behavior.
From this information gathering, we could tell that between 2009 and 2014, about 30 individual mantas were seen on a regular basis (more than 50x a year). That’s not that many!
The Risk Status of Manta Rays
Even though they’re alike in some ways, these mantas act and look slightly different. This affects how likely they are to be affected by certain situations and possibly disappear in the future.
Are Reef Mantas Endangered?
Reef manta rays prefer to stay near reefs, making them particularly vulnerable as they inhabit shallow waters easily disturbed by human activity.
Unfortunately, manta ray ecotourism is not well-regulated in most countries, and this is a huge problem for the future well-being of these majestic creatures.
- ESA Reef Manta Status (US): The reef manta is not on the ESA list of endangered/threatened species.
- IUCN Reef Manta Status (Globally): According to the IUCN, reef mantas are listed as “Vulnerable”.
According to the IUCN, the number of reef manta rays has decreased by about 30 to 49% in the last 87 years, about three generations for these rays. Experts think their population might also keep decreasing in the next three generations.
Are Giant Manta Rays Threatened with Extinction?
Pelagic (giant) mantas are large, slow-growing creatures that move long distances. Due to their migratory behavior, it is rare to see the same giant manta twice. Their regular habitat is the vast open ocean.
- ESA Reef Manta Status (US): In 2018, NOAA Fisheries listed the Oceanic Manta as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
- IUCN Pelagic Manta Status (Globally): Pelagic mantas are listed as endangered.
Again according to the IUCN, the number of oceanic manta rays has decreased by about 50 to 79% in the last 87 years, which is about three generations for these rays.
What are the Main Threats to Mantas?
Pelagic (giant) mantas and Reef mantas face similar problems but on different scales.
- Fishing is one of the main threats to manta rays worldwide. Manta rays are being hunted for their meat (food) and certain body parts for so-called medicinal properties.
- Even when mantas are not targeted directly, the fishing industry is a big threat to manta rays – they are accidentally captured in fishing nets (bycatch), or harmed by discarded fishing nets and other equipment.
- In some parts of the world (Hawaii is one of them), manta rays are the victim of their own popularity – when manta tourism gets out of hand. Read more about the topic here.
- Pollution and climate change also affect the manta rays directly and indirectly by disturbing their natural habitat.
- On top of that, manta rays have a slow reproduction rate, with only one pup every 4-5 years. This means their population doesn’t grow as fast as other sea creatures.
Why do Pelagic and Reef Mantas have a Different Risk Status?
Although the reef manta ray reproduces slowly, the species isn’t under serious threat of extinction yet.
Despite facing some fishing in certain areas, many groups of reef mantas in the Western and Central Pacific (like Maldives and Australia) are safe and even growing in number. Laws in some of these places completely ban fishing, catching, or trading mantas, and because reef mantas prefer to stay in specific spots along the coast, these rules help stop them from being exploited.
For all these reasons, the reef manta ray is likely to be at a low overall risk of extinction.
However, the giant manta rays are highly migratory, covering vast distances across the open sea. Due to their extensive movements, tracking their exact numbers and routes is challenging.
Their nomadic lifestyle exposes them to significant risks posed by large-scale fishing vessels and local fishermen utilizing expansive nets. This ongoing fishing activity significantly elevates the threat of their potential disappearance, and the slow reproduction rate does not help either.
How You Can Help Save the Manta Rays
What can you do to help save the manta rays from disappearing?
If you want to go snorkeling or scuba diving with these amazing creatures, choose an eco-conscious tour operator for your manta ray adventure. This supports companies that are trying their best and encourages everyone in the manta ray tourism industry to be safe and environmentally friendly. And don’t forget to tell your friends and family about this so they can do the same.
Even if you’re not planning a manta ray swim in the near future, there are several things you can do right now to save the ocean and its inhabitants. Read our best recommendations on this page, or consider supporting one of our favorite ocean conservation organizations.
Let’s work together to keep our oceans and the majestic manta rays safe for future generations!