Belize Leads the ‘Rayvolution’, Protecting All Rays From Fishing

In the wild, a struggle between a shark and a ray usually doesn’t end well for the ray. The same is true for rays in the world of conservation.

Though related to sharks, rays are often overlooked, possibly due to a lack of public interest and funding. What’s most shocking about this is that as a group, rays are more threatened with extinction than sharks, and even some of the most expensive fins in the “shark” fin trade come from wedgefish, guitarfish, and sawfish – all of which are rays. Although several shark sanctuaries include protection from commercial fishing for both sharks and rays, no nationwide sanctuary has been designated exclusively for rays – until now.

Home to the second largest barrier reef in the world and over 20 ray species, Belize officially became a ray sanctuary with the recent passing of a comprehensive Fisheries Resources Bill into law that was ten years in the making. The new law ensures that no commercial fishing effort for rays can be set up within 200 nautical miles off its coastline and will keep neighboring nations from exploiting Belize’s ray populations. The ray sanctuary does not threaten Belizean fisher livelihoods; any ray accidentally caught in fishing gear can be released alive.

Thanks to the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Global FinPrint has been contributing data to the ray revolution for the past couple years. Communicated by Florida International University Ph.D. Candidate Katie Flowers and Associate Professor Dr. Demian Chapman, Belize used these data in their decision-making process. It is clear that without the support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the establishment of a ray sanctuary would not have been possible.

“I was surprised to hear how threatened rays are globally and decided that Belize could be a good global citizen by protecting them,” said Belize Fisheries Administrator Beverly Wade. “Neighboring countries are exploiting rays, but here in Belize, rays are valuable to our tourism industry.”

When you think of a ray, you probably envision a graceful manta ray or a cownose ray you once fed at the local aquarium, yet there are more than 633 ray species globally (and counting). We have many species to thank for a bourgeoning tourism industry worth millions of dollars in several nations. And it is through this growing industry that Belize has decided to shine a “ray” of light on conservation.

On any given snorkel or dive in Belize, you’re likely to see multiple ray species – a whitespotted eagle ray, a yellow round ray, a southern stingray, or an Atlantic chupare. And if you’re really lucky, you may even encounter a threatened species like a manta ray, smalltooth sawfish, or Ticon cownose ray.

“Moving forward, we want to ensure that this remains a conservation success story,” said Flowers. “We will continue working with the Belize Fisheries Department to monitor populations of sharks and rays and engage in outreach with the local fishing and tourism communities.”

In 1990, the late Dr. Alan Rabinowitz helped Belize protect just over 150 square miles of jaguar habitat in the world’s first jaguar sanctuary. With the addition of the world’s first ray sanctuary, Belize has blossomed as a global leader for the preservation of threatened species on land and at sea.

Just as camera traps have helped scientists monitor jaguar populations in Belize, baited remote underwater video surveys conducted by Global FinPrint in Belize have shown us that ray populations are doing well and are worthy of protection. Belize’s conservation action is the start of a ray revolution, or “rayvolution.”

Follow this work and more from our team on Twitter and Instagram: @globalfinprint @elasmokflow @peclabfiu

Whitespotted Eagle Ray
Smalltooth Sawfish
Whitespotted eagle ray seen by a Global FinPrint BRUV
Southern Stingray, a species found in Belize