Andrea Marshall is exceptional to say the least. A marine biologist, lead author for the IUCN's Red List for manta ray and shark species, BBC documentary star, and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, founder of Marine Megafauna Foundation, the first person in the world to complete a PhD on Manta Rays. After her thesis, Andrea went on to Mozambique to vanguard the conservation movements of manta rays within the region and around the world and we chatted to her about all things Mantas.
You were the first person in the world to complete a PHD on Manta Rays, what was the focus for your thesis on Manta Rays?
Yes that is true. Because there was no formal academic study before this thesis I suppose my approach was just to generally learn more about them as a species, which then quickly turned into two species. So the thesis was on the general biology and ecology of both species of manta rays off the southern Mozambican coastline. I did some general work on the size and structure of the populations, I looked at their reproductive ecology, the importance of daily cleaning rituals and threats from predation in the area, and of course I famously described the second species of manta formally in that thesis.
You moved to Mozambique to study, what are the highlights of this place?
Mozambique has just the most incredible coastline. I identified early on that the coastline off the Inhambane Province in the south of the country is one of the most important coastlines for marine megafauna in the Indian Ocean. It is an important breeding area for manta rays and humpback whales, a regular migratory corridor for endangered whale sharks and apex predators, including bull sharks, and potentially the only spawning area for black marlin in the Indian Ocean. This coastline was recently declared an IMMA (Important Marine Mammal Area) by an IUCN special task force. Several species of dolphin, including the highly threatened humpback dolphin, use this coastline and the Bazaruto Seascape is home to the last viable population of dugong in Africa. Five species of sea turtles use provincial waters or nest along its shores. A staggering number of rare and understudied species also live along this coastline, particularly sharks and rays. For example, the region likely contains one of the most important habitats for critically endangered wedge-fish in Africa.
Can you tell us what drove you to begin MegaFauna foundation?
Well, I had finished my PhD and I was getting recruited to work for other NGO or move into the academic track at a University but none of the offers sat right with me. I am a field biologist and my strength is working in the field and connecting with stakeholders and local people in the areas that I work. I did not want to work behind a desk in a city and visit my field sites a few times a year. So together with one of my best friends, Simon Pierce, who was equally as frustrated with the options out there, I decided to start the Marine Megafauna Foundation. The idea was to use the model of creating large scale iconic protected areas in Africa off the back of large charismatic and economically important species, e.g. lion, rhino and elephant but do it in the ocean using marine megafauna. Researchers from the Marine Megafauna Foundation have now been active along the eastern coast of Africa for 20 years and have pioneered the exploration of the marine environment in this area. We have authored over 40 peer-reviewed scientific papers on marine life in the region, all of which have been disseminated to government to help support on-going marine conservation efforts. True to our original mission our primary objective in Mozambique is to safeguard the globally-significant marine megafauna populations that occur in the Inhambane Province by supporting the development of a network of adjoining marine protected areas. To ensure the viability of long-term conservation efforts across ‘this seascape’, we additionally are helping to design science-based management strategies for the individual MPAs. Along the way we hope to help reduce indiscriminate fishing practices in the Province, build capacity and awareness in local communities living along the coast and support the development of a sustainable eco-tourism industry.
Ray of Hope Expeditions is about proactive approach to travel and ocean hobbies, in what other ways can people play an active role in conservation?
To mitigate current marine related problems, expert scientists estimate we need to protect between 20-40% of our oceans. By doing so we will create refuges for vulnerable species, help to regenerate depleted fish stocks, safeguard critical habitats, preserve genetic variability and promote biodiversity. Spoiler alert, we are nowhere near this target! But there is a growing global campaign to try to get to 30% of the oceans by 2030 and even though that target is incredible ambitious I think it is essential we try. How does the public get involved and tend their support?
Well, the most obvious way to get involved is to cast your vote or voice your opinion. Vote. Vote for politicians and leaders who's agenda includes strong support of the environment. Get directly involved in campaigns. While it is hard to keep up with all of the campaigns running globally, it is realistic to keep an eye on local or regional campaigns seeking support for the development of protected areas. It might not seem like it, but many of the sanctuaries and reserves of the world were created off momentum fuelled by public outcry. As a conservation biologist I can argue at the top of my lungs, citing the scientific rational behind the need for protection, but a much swifter way to gain visibility and government support for a project is to get the voting public behind the cause. If you are frustrated with the lack of protected areas in your backyard, do some digging around, see what campaigns or projects are in the pipeline and figure out what you can do to help, even if it is only by lending your voice.
More than anything, the enormous costs of running protected areas can hamper their establishment. Of course, the faster they can become self-sustaining, the more likely they are to succeed and serve as models for others behind them. A surefire way for national parks, marine reserves and protected areas to sustain themselves is through tourism. Tourism is the largest industry in the world and marine related tourism has been growing steadily for decades. Just as ocean lovers favour companies with good environmental policies, purchase eco-friendly products and abstain from eating unsustainably caught fish, it is important that the public supports protected areas around the world by simply visiting them. The surest way for you to voice your approval of protected areas is to preferentially support them over areas that are not protected or that are managed poorly. This small act of support can have huge impacts on the success of these kinds of initiatives and help facilitate the creation of future protected areas.
As a follow on to that, it is important to always follow codes of conduct and best practice standards when you are out in nature. You are not only responsible for your own actions, but you may serve as a role model, influencing the behaviour of others around you. Again, it is about balance. To have the continued privilege of going out into the nature, seeing wild places and engaging with marine life, it is important that we protect the places/things we love. This means not disturbing or touching animals, plants or structures in the sea, it means taking photos and memories away with you and nothing else, and it means not leaving anything that you brought to the sea behind when you leave. Creating marine protected areas is one thing, but helping to support them so that they function properly is a gift that only you can give. If we all do our part, these incredible areas will continue to thrive well into the future.
You discovered a new species of Manta, what other insights have you uncovered in regards to Mantas?
Oh wow, well when you study an animal for the first time there are so many interesting discoveries to be made. By far the most interesting is likely the discovery of a second species of manta ray and this year we will be describing a third so that is really cool. Manta rays are one of the largest fish in the sea and we were unaware that there were multiple species living around the globe. That to me is still so unbelievable considering how much we know about the moon and outer-space. Maybe the second most surprising was uncovering that the giant oceanic manta ray undertakes long distance migrations and dives into the depths of the ocean well over 1000 meters from the surface. We had presumed manta rays were inshore, shallow-water dwelling animals, since this is the environment we encountered them. Needless to say, we were all shocked when they broke the diving record for fish (at the time) and slowly we came to the realisation that these were highly migratory species capable of withstanding harsh, deep water environments. I truly believe that this was an important discovery so early in my career. It drove home the concept that researchers should always keep an open mind and never be satisfied with what we think we know about an animal or a situation. If we are to progress, it is absolutely fundamental that we constantly challenge what we currently know about the natural world. It is a lesson that I will not soon forget.
Where is your research focused on now?
Gosh. At the moment a lot of our research focuses on learning more about the threats that our focal species, like manta rays face and how we can reduce or remove these threats. We are also working hard to identify the priorities area for conservation globally for our focal species and then helping to create protected areas in these locations to safeguard these important populations. I think I mentioned previously that I am finishing off my 20 year quest to resolve the taxonomic issues with manta rays and get the third species described. We are also looking a lot into the social behaviours of manta rays which is a fascinating field of research.
Learn more about the Marine Megafauna Foundation here.
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