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12 winners of The Ocean Awards

7 of 12 7/12
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The Ocean Awards winner Dr Andrea Marshall & Guy Stevens
7

Winner — Science: Dr Andrea Marshall & Guy Stevens

For — groundbreaking research

Photography of Dr Andrea Marshall by Donja Pitsch

The Science award is given to the scientific work or paper that made the most original, important or insightful contribution to ocean conservation in the past year. Dr Andrea Marshall and Guy Stevens are winners at The Ocean Awards because their research led to the listing of reef mantas on the Convention of Migratory _Species and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species._

Of the 5,600 or so species of animal protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known more commonly as CITES, only just over 100 are fish. Two are species of manta ray: Manta birostris, which can grow to be eight metres wide; and the smaller reef manta ray, Manta alfredi. Their protection is, in most part, thanks to petitioning by the US-based Marine Megafauna Foundation, founded by the marine biologist Dr Andrea Marshall, and the Manta Trust, founded by the British-born marine biologist Guy Stevens.

Marshall’s research team has worked for years to highlight the vulnerability of these animals: their low reproductive rates, small population sizes and quick population collapses. Establishing the first global online database, called Manta Matcher, enabled scuba divers around the world to report encounters with mantas and post identification photographs, which allowed researchers to track their movements and lifespans.

Combining this “citizen science” collected data with information from advanced satellite tags, researchers were able to show how far and often these rays migrate into unprotected waters – further evidence of their grave situation. This information was used in recent years to list both species of manta on the appendices of the Convention of Migratory Species, but it was a listing on CITES that was the critical step needed to end the unregulated trade in these species to China.

“As conservation biologists, all we can hope for is that our research has a tangible impact on conservation,” Marshall says. “The CITES listing was the culmination of a decade of hard work to gain more protection for these incredible species. It was the single most important conservation win for manta rays in history and we are overjoyed by the achievement.”

“It was a wonderful win to put manta rays on the CITES list,” says Professor Callum Roberts, one of the judges of this year’s Ocean Awards. “They made the case cogently and very convincingly that exploitation of manta rays was not sustainable and would endanger them with extinction.”

“There were two areas that needed to be tackled,” Marshall explains. “My team did the research and field work behind the ecology, the migrations, the biological detail and the threat that mantas face as a species, while Guy’s team really focused on the Asian trade, what it was worth, the fisheries side of things.”

Stevens adds: “Manta gill plates are used in Chinese medicine and the trade in that is causing these animals to decline in certain areas. By having them listed on CITES, we can regulate that trade and hopefully stop it.

“In the grand scheme of things manta rays aren’t worth a huge amount to the nations that are fishing for them,” he continues. “If you’re going to throw a bone to the conservation world, giving them manta rays is not a particularly painful thing to do in terms of economic loss.” It terms of its value to the marine environment, and the world as a whole, though, this move to conserve manta populations is immeasurable.

Highly commended — M Aaron MacNeil, Nicholas AJ Graham, Joshua E Cinner, Shaun K Wilson, Ivor D Williams, Joseph Maina, Steven Newman, Alan M Friedlander, Stacy Jupiter, Nicholas VC Polunin and Tim R McClanahan

For — their paper “Recovery potential of the world’s coral reef fishes”, February 2015. Published in the journal Nature, researchers from Australia, the UK and the US examined more than 800 reefs in 64 locations around the world and found that

83 per cent of fished reefs now have less than half the number of fish they were expected to have. Their findings have been used to develop the first benchmarks for the recovery potential of fished reefs.

Highly commended — Douglas J McCauley, Malin L Pinsky, Stephen R Palumbi, James A Estes, Francis H Joyce, Robert R Warner

For — their paper “Marine defaunation: Animal loss in the global ocean”, January 2015. Marine scientists from the University of California, Stanford University and the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University, New Jersey, compared loss of marine animal populations with endangered terrestrial species and found that marine fauna are generally in better condition than terrestrial fauna. They conclude that, with careful stewardship, the rehabilitation of affected marine animal populations remains possible.

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