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Chat: Mark Meekan

Monday, November 5, 2012

Interviewer: 60 Minutes presents a live interview with marine biologist, Dr Mark Meekan.

Interviewer: Mark, good evening and welcome to our live online chatroom.

Mark Meekan: Thank you for having me tonight, I'm looking forward to the questions.

Nick asks: Where can we find information on how to go on these tours to see the manta's?

Mark Meekan: Very easy, if you go and search for Maldivian Manta Rays or you search Maldives, Mantas, numerable websites will pop up that will give a variety of options. If you are in the Maldives there are a number of tour agents who can arrange it. Tours are quite popular not sure how many per year but it's in the thousands. They are run through most of the hotels. Each hotel has it's own tour. Also depends how deep your pockets are. You can stay at cheaper or more expensive hotels and still do the tours.

Nick asks: Is there a way to stop this senseless killing in Singapore of the mantas?

Mark Meekan: First thing it's not Singapore that is doing it, it's actually Sri Lanka, but the important thing is that harvesting is going on throughout South East Asia, some have banned it but many others are finding it a thriving trade. For example Indonesia harvest many thousands every year. Also we are seeing Chinese fishing vessels fishing throughout many places in the Indian Ocean. The problem is that the gill rakers are important for Chinese medicine that many countries are motivated to harvest them and China is one of them. A key way of stopping the trade is to encourage eco tourism. This is a good way to stop the animals being harvested as you give them a value. Various calculations have been done but the trade in tourism in the Maldives is worth millions per year. If you catch a manta and sell it that is only one income. It is essential that similar tourist ventures like the Maldives in other places in South East Asia e.g. Indonesia would be good. Thankfully that does seem to be happening. You can now swim with mantas in places like Bali but we need more. If local people realise they are worth more via the tourist dollar they won't harvest them but encourage tourism. To save the manta ray, save the tourism.

Paul asks: how is it the gills are supposed to be a cancer cure?

Mark Meekan: The Chinese believe that the animal filters the water and therefore when you take the powdered form it will filter you blood. It will filter you blood of impurities. Of course the logic in black and white is completely ridiculous. The problem with this is that like all remedies you are attacking someone's belief system that has held for thousands of years. You are trying to overturn a real belief system in Chinese medicine. One of the things people are doing is talking to the Chinese people. There are many Chinese NGOs who are attacking the trade in China itself for things like shark fin which is another major problem. The have had celebrities advertising how important the shark is. It's about education we need to get in at both ends, stop the trade where the mantas are being caught and act on public demand for the mantas. This will help to have them around for the future.

Luke asks: How did you get started into researching the manta's?

Mark Meekan: Basically because I've had a large number of projects working on sharks and rays. Many of the questions people were asking were similar to questions asked about whale sharks in Mingaloo. There is a problem in China with shark fin soup. We measure how fast these animals are growing Guy invited me to help work out the growth rate. Growth rate is important for these animals. Squids grow fast so they can be harvested fast. However if an animal grows slowly then replacement of those taken from fishing is a slow process and leads to a rapid decline in numbers. We have evidence the manta population is decreasing quickly. Things like their growth rates, number of young etc are what we call conservative. They have only one pup every 2 years and we think they grow slowly. We were trying to determine how resiliant these populations would be.

Robbie asks: Are Mantra's only found in the Maldives?

Mark Meekan: No they are found throughout the tropics, but up to only a few years ago we thought there was one species but it turns out there are three. One of the girls in Mozambique in a place called Tofu Bay (have a look on her website) Andrea Marshall, took a close look at the mantas near her study site, there are about 400 resident animals she sees daily and weekly. There seem to be two different types one that hangs around and another one called the oceanic manta ray and that visits the research site only frequently. There is a difference in the body structure also. This means that manta rays probably differ in their susceptibility, therefore it affects if they are harvested. If you are wandering around oceans, they are harder to harvest. They think the manta in the Caribbean may be different again so they will have to consider conservation of that species separate to the other two.

Luke asks: how could we get into the marine biology field?

Mark Meekan: Well, it depends. There are lots who say they are marine biologist and there are different ways of being one. Such as a university course that might get you a job in guiding tours on the Barrier Reef or working as a technical officer somewhere. To move to research you need a post graduate degree which is offered at universities here and overseas. That degree will get you into research, organisations such as WA Dept of Environment and Conservation where you monitor some of these animals off the coast. You could be an academic researcher. Most people wouldn’t get a tenure until late 20s or 30s. There are lots of ways to be a marine biologist and potential career paths. You need to explore and talk to others in the field and see what might suit you. AinslieRust asks: Hi Mark, My names Ainslie and I was wondering how I could get involved in saving the beautiful Manta? Is there any group, that I could join that goes on expeditions to the Maldives etc to research the Manta? Any volunteer work or anything? Thanks.

Mark Meekan: Absolutely there is. The person to contact is Guy Stevens he was the co-presenter in the story. He runs a manta research trust. Search his name on the internet and the Manta Trust will come up. I have a huge respect for what they do they run on a shoestring and do wonderful conservation projects. They are a bunch of dedicated, thoughtful and careful people who are making a difference. One should never say one person can't make a difference because Guy IS making a difference. I am very pleased to be associated with him.

gabrielle.n asks: At the rate the culling is going, how long is it predicted until the Mantas become extinct?

Mark Meekan: The simple answer is we don't know. The information we are trying to get e.g. growth rates is what we need for the future. We don't know exactly how many are out there or how many breeding animals are there. The research is ongoing. Once you know some basics, how they grow, breed etc I suspect the answer won't be good. The harvest of the Mantas doesn't happen in the "normal" fishery. In a fishery off Australia or other well managed place the catch is recorded, so the catch is sustainable. But when you are talking of third world countries there are no checks and balances. We have little idea who many animals are going through these markets, we suspect a lot but we don't know. Every time we try to look it becomes more clandestine and goes under the counter. In Indonesia we are unsure if the trade has been driven underground or if mantas are declining. If we could say mantas will be extinct in 50 years we would have something to go on, but we don't really know. We don't have a good handle on the catch rates from third world and developing word fisheries. Guy is trying to document what is going on and I'm trying to help. I don't think it will take too long but we worry the answer when we get it won't be too pretty. That's why we need local, grass roots eco tourism running as soon as possible. We need to turn around how the local fisherman see's the income of the manta to best help the survival of the animal.

serrat asks: Hi, I'm a year 10 student. I recently went on a marine biology trip to Perth and was fortunate enough to get up and close with these majestic creatures. Are there any organisations we are able support that help protect the mantas?

Mark Meekan: Again, I come back to the manta trust and Guy Stevens. They are an outstanding organisation and worthy of support. They are operating mostly overseas through developing countries. In Australia there are also some manta ray projects, there is one at Coral Bay, one at Lady Elliot Island run through Murdoch University and the University of Qld. I'm aware they take on volunteers from time to time so contact them to see if there are any opportunities going.

BofBONDI asks: do you think you will see the sri lankans and indonesians will ever protect them as they did in equador for sharks in the galapagus?

Mark Meekan: I think there is every chance it will happen. I'm just back from the Philippines where I was looking at an eco tourism operation working with whale sharks. They used to harvest them but due to the tourism opportunities they now protect them and they are turning a big profit. So instead of over harvesting the reefs they are now in the tourism and making more money. They are going from two meals a day to three meals a day as tour operators. This is able to be replicated in other places. It's not hard to see how others might do something similar with manta rays. In Indonesia it's a case of giving the people the means to do it. In west Timor we have been helping with whale sharks. If we can help people to develop small scale tourism that is the best possible outcome for the protection of the species.

Mark69 asks: When I go back to Manta Ray Island Resort next year in Fiji, am I safe in the knowledge that these animals are protected there?

Mark Meekan: Gee I don't know to be honest, that's difficult for me to answer as I'm not sure of the actual situation in Fiji. I've been involved there with a shark sanctuary but not sure about mantas. You could ask someone like Greenpeace or any of the major conservation groups and they could update you on a locality around the world you may visit. You must realise these animals are very migratory, so protection in one place might not be the same in another country. You need to consider the region so it's important mantas are brought into regional agreements. We have conventions on migratory species and mantas come into that and at least we are starting to get some of the legislation in place and important it's not just paper legislation. We need local people at the village level empowered by tourism or the like. When we see that happening it will start to make a difference so that's the most important thing at the moment.

Maria asks: I am curious about your choice of the manta ray. The ocean is full of creatures - why the manta ray?

Mark Meekan: Basically because I work on sharks and rays. My interest started at Mingaloo where I’ve been working for a few years. There are a lot of different species out there and some are easier than others as you can access them more easily. Mantas are one of those, a lot of them come back to the same place. You may have seen when the mantas were barrel rolling, on the underside they have black blotches which are individual to each animal so we can recognise each one of the animals. So we know there are 400 in the group in Mozambique, there are around 40 at Mingaloo. We can give each a name or number and this makes research a whole lot easier. You can build a photo id library and compare with another researcher and we can ask, are any of these animals travelling between locations. We can ask how long do the live, how fast are they growing, you can work with this because the animals come back to the same place and can be recognised. As a researcher it makes your job easier. I have to admit that getting in the water with a manta ray is a fantastic experience and if you can do it it's wonderful. Some of them look like a small car with wings. They are a joy to behold. It's truly a wonderful experience, you can do it on the Barrier Reef, off Lady Elliot or Lady Musgrave Islands or Coral Bay. Us scientists are human we like to swim with those animals too.

tigerboy asks: Are there any changes we can make to our lifestyle to assist their exsistance? E.g. Like how we can buy products without palm oil to save the Tigers.

Mark Meekan: Clearly the issue is not one that happens in Australia, we don't catch them here. That problem is really in South East Asia and China. Best is to support the manta ray trust or other groups who are actively involved in conservation. That said there are some things you can do such as with sharks - shark fin soup is sold all over Australia. It's not saving a Manta but they all share a similar history that make them easy to harvest. So avoiding sharkfin soup would be a good, and telling the restaurant why. On a broader basis there are a number of organisations trying to make the consumer aware of the consequences, one of those is the Marine Stewardship Council and they certify seafood as sustainable based on their criteria I'm not sure that certification is in Australia yet. It's a developing thing that will become worldwide and it's important that the question is asked about sustainability.

M.J.E. asks: I recall reading, in a book by Isaac Asimov (known as much for his science writing as for his science-fiction), maybe 20 or 30 years ago, that he regarded human population growth as the main threat to all endangered species, due to the finite mass of life that the planet can support, and that, unless humans can stop population grown and even start a gradual reduction of population, all attempts to save endangered species are doomed - effectively a waste of time, effort, and money. Asimov's argument was, of course, a lot more detailed than that, and struck me as very convincing. I was just wondering whether you are aware of that view, and you think of it. Thanks.

Mark Meekan: Jacques Costeau said that over population was at the heart of every environmental problem in the world. I'm not sure I buy into that view as if look at India where I've been collaborating, the people are doing some incredible conservation, they have managed to balance the two things. I think that as the worlds population grows we will be faced with hard decisions about what we save and what will disappear, but I don't think that's an excuse that justifies us to not try.

Lofty asks: Where do the Manta fit in terms of the marine ecosystem? If they were to disappear what would be the follow effects to these ecosystems?

Mark Meekan: Good question. The answer is we don't really know. Research on these big types of animals, is really in it's infancy and has only just started. Before there has been research on sharks but the ecology of things like manta rays is a new field we don't know where they fit in. We know they appear where the gulf of exmouth around the times the prawns are spawned, but the actual food chain and their effect on it we don't know yet but are doing our darndest to figure it out.

Interviewer: Unfortunately we have run out of time this evening. Any final comments before we finish up?

Mark Meekan: Just want to say it's been a privilege working with Guy he is an example of a dedicated and sensitive person who works to get truly effective outcomes. Guy is a shining example of how one person can change things. I'm done, thank you so much for the questions tonight.

Interviewer: This concludes our chat with Mark Meekan, Sunday November 4, 2012.

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