Learn how you can help Mote Marine Laboratory researchers document spotted eagle rays — a stunning but mysterious species whose movement patterns in the wild are mostly unknown to science — during a free talk on March 7 in the Florida Keys.
Kim Hull, senior biologist at Mote, will reveal how she and her team are studying spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari) and how divers, anglers, snorkelers and others can help Mote look for eagle-ray hotspots in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary during her talk entitled "Spotted Eagle Ray Conservation Research: How YOU can help" at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:45) on Thursday, March 7.
The talk will be hosted by NOAA’s Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center in the Dr. Nancy Foster Florida Keys Environmental Complex, 33 East Quay Road in Key West.
Spotted eagle rays have been observed in Keys waters, but little is known about where they spend most of their time, how much of the year they spend there and whether the Keys rays migrate from afar — important information for conservation.
In 2009, Mote and the National Aquarium in Baltimore initiated a conservation research program on the life history, reproduction, and population status of spotted eagle rays. Mote scientists have been documenting the rays in Southwest Florida waters using boat and airplane surveys, photo identification, ID tags and genetic sampling.
“We don’t know if the rays in the Keys come from Southwest Florida, or perhaps even Mexico or Cuba, and we don’t know if rays in the Keys favor particular reefs,” Hull said. “If we can find hotspots for these eagle rays in the Keys, with help from people who spend time out on the water, this would help us direct our future research, with the ultimate goal of developing a conservation plan for the eagle rays.”
It is illegal to fish for or kill spotted eagle rays in Florida waters, but they aren’t protected under federal law and international protections are limited as well. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an organization that establishes the conservation status of species worldwide, lists them as near-threatened with a decreasing population trend.
They are heavily harvested in places like Mexico, mostly as food, and this fishing pressure, combined with their low reproductive rates, make spotted eagle rays a vulnerable species. But there’s too little information to determine how much danger they’re in. Mote scientists are working with Mexican and Cuban researchers to gather genetic samples from spotted eagle ray fisheries to better understand how eagle ray populations are structured in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.
In the Florida Keys, the monitoring efforts for eagle rays will coordinate with MEERA (Marine Ecosystem Event Response and Assessment), a program carried out by Mote with support from and coordination with NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. MEERA allows the public to help monitor for coral bleaching and disease, algal blooms, invasive species impacts and other environmental changes in the Keys and surrounding waters. On March 7, Mote staff biologist Cory Walter will share information about MEERA and introduce the eagle ray talk.
Be sure to subscribe to this column, travel to some of the greatest local getaways around, all from the comfort of your desktop (or laptop, or PDA, or smartphone!) If you have a favorite local attraction you'd like to see profiled, please let me know. Also, be sure to follow me on twitter, and read my articles about motorsports, HOAs, elections, and restaurants.