Here at the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI), members of the Shark Research and Conservation Program are trying to unlock some of the many mysteries surrounding stingrays. Much like their shark ancestors, there are still many myths and misconceptions about these typically mild mannered creatures. Once believed to be nothing more than vermin on local reefs, scientists are now beginning to appreciate their true value as mesobenthic predators. Through a process called bioturbation, rays can alter ecosystems physically, chemically, and biologically. Often overlooked and underappreciated, these amazing animals play a vital role in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem.
The CEI Stingray Project, led by Dr. Owen O’Shea, began in January of 2015, and is the largest study of its kind in The Bahamas. The purpose of this research on stingrays is to gain valuable baseline data regarding their habitat use, growth rates, behavior, daily activity budgets, genetic connectivity, demography and feeding preferences. Rays are caught via spot seining along local creeks, coasts and offshore sand cays and are measured, tagged, sampled for tissue and blood, and released. Together with the help of our Island School students, visiting Educational Programs and undergraduate students, Dr. O’Shea has caught 175 stingrays across both species, including 59 recaptured individuals.
Since these rays occupy coastal and nearshore environments, it is believed they are actually more susceptible to anthropogenic impacts such as habitat loss and degradation and overfishing when compared to offshore populations of fish. It is critical that further research is conducted to learn more about these animals. This research will allow for the formation of a more solid knowledge base as well as an efficient conservation and management framework for both species and the habitats that support them.
Last week, the Stingray Research Group, headed by Dr. Owen O’Shea, took 15 of our Bahamian staff members out to The Schooner Cays– a location the majority of staff have never visited despite gracing the views from office windows all over campus. The goal was for the team to experience and learn the scientific objectives of this research project Two groups of staff were organised into morning and afternoon trips, along with other ray team members. First, there was safety briefings and capture methodologies discussed in the boathouse, along with the objectives and conservation ambitions of this research, before heading out on the water to find rays.
The morning group, featuring kitchen manager Sophia Louis, guest services employee Corey Lightborne, and Bio-diesel engineer Sammy Dorcent, saw five stingrays caught in just 3 hours, including three new individuals, and the retrieval of one of our data loggers. The team was enthused and excited to be part of this research, and preconceptions regarding these gentle animals were challenged, with every member participating in either catching or working up animals.
The afternoon session saw a slightly tighter schedule (largely due to inclement weather), and included head of facilities Oscar Knowles, most of the accounts team, and campus mechanic Valentino Hall, who helped catch two additional rays. We were also able to deploy a data logger and, like the morning team, we travelled back to Cape Eleuthera to the sound of joyous discussion on how valuable the experience was. Requests for further expeditions have been made, and certainly the Stingray Research Group aims to make another trip before Christmas, for those staff unable to attend this one.
Stingrays are among a group of animals poorly understood and often feared among Bahamians, and so sharing this work and allowing up close and personal interactions with these rays has dispelled myths and changed perceptions, certainly among those staff who attended.