Moby the Manta Ray Part 2: How I Am Alike and Different From My Cousins the Sharks

Moby the Manta Ray & his Shark cousins
Manta Ray (photo by Cherilyn Jose)

Sharks, rays, and skates are part of a group of fish known as elasmobranchs. There are many ways in which I am the same as my cousins, the sharks and rays. All elasmobranchs do not have any bones. We are made cartilage, which is the same flexible material that human noses and external ear flaps are made of. Like sharks, I have a rigid dorsal fin, but mine is situated more to the rear. If you were to pet a shark (I do not recommend it!) you would immediately notice their denticles. Denticles are little teeth embedded in an elasmobranch’s skin. If you ran your hand from a shark’s head to tail, then their skin would feel very smooth. If you ran your hand from tail to head, then their skin would feel rough like sandpaper. These denticles make sharks’ bodies very streamlined so they can move quickly and quietly through the water.

Most rays have a mouth on their ventral (belly) side, and eyes on the top of their head so they can see when buried in the sand. My mouth is at the front of my body so I can open it wide to filter plankton from the seawater around me. My eyes are on the side of my head, and at the base of where my head fins are fused to my body. The length of our head fins is in proportion to how wide our bodies are.

Manta rays do vary in one special way from our shark and ray cousins, as we have the highest brain to body ratio of any of them! In fact, we have the largest brain of any fish in the ocean! It takes a certain amount of brain power to figure out where to migrate to, and to make repeat visits to those hotspots year after year. Reef manta rays need to remember where their favorite cleaning stations are! We can recognize individual divers, and we are smart enough to know when they are trying to help us, and we stay still. Often we get caught in an anchor line, mooring line, or fishing line since our head fins automatically close when brushed. I have seen, or heard stories about, many humans cutting off any line or hook stuck to a manta ray. For more information on manta rays and why we need your help, see previous blog entry on me, and visit Manta Ray of Hope

Moby the Manta Ray: I Am Not a Devilfish! Part 1

Moby the Manta Ray
Manta Ray (photo by Cherilyn Jose)

Hello, my name is Moby and I am a manta ray (Manta birostris). Despite the unfortunate nickname humans have given me, “devilfish,” I am quite a gentle and graceful giant. My wingspan can be up to 25 feet (7.6 meters) and I can weigh up to 2,900 pounds (1,300 kilograms)! The devilfish name came about as my head (cephalic) fins look like devil horns when they are curled up. But much of the time I am feeding and my head fins are unfurled to help funnel seawater into my gills. Despite my size, I only eat tiny microscopic-sized plankton that I filter through my gills. I use my gills not only to breathe, but they also act like sieves to scoop out my meals from the surrounding seawater. Although SCUBA divers often do not like cloudy water, I love it as it usually means that it is full of food for me! Because I like cloudy water full of yummy things like fish eggs, (and other spawn related products, use your imagination!) I am highly migratory. There is one species of Manta Ray (Manta alfredi), like those that live off the main island of Hawaii, that stays mainly in one area. But I like the thrill of the open ocean and I have a knack of knowing where and when fish and invertebrates will spawn.

I am a ray, which means I am related to sharks, as well as other rays like stingrays and bat rays. But, as you can see from my picture or from videos, I flap my wings and glide gracefully through the water, and I only rarely rest on the bottom. Other rays have stingers near the base of their tail, bury themselves in the sand to hide from predators, and ambush their prey. I do not have a stinger on my tail, as I rely on my speed and agility to out swim any predators, which include sharks and orcas (killer whales).

Unfortunately, my gills are not just valuable to me. Humans have begun to hunt me and my friends on an ocean wide basis mainly for our gill rakers for use in a new controversial formula used in Traditional Chinese Medicine . Sometimes, but not always, they use the rest of our bodies for cheap shark fin soup “filler.” Hunting me and my kind almost solely for my gills is so wasteful, just as hunting sharks just for their fins, or elephants just for their ivory tusks is also very wasteful, not to mention mean! A female manta ray over her lifetime will give birth to as many pups (16) as a great white shark does in a single litter (14). Great white sharks are already becoming endangered, and I hope that I do not have to worry about that too! Some countries protect me in their waters, but most of the time I am in international waters where I am not protected. Please visit Manta Ray of Hope or WildAid to see how you can help me and my kind!

Letter to California Governor Jerry Brown in support of AB 376

shark fin ban & finning
taken at Monterey Bay Aquarium by Cherilyn Jose

Dear Governor Jerry Brown,
As a lifelong California resident, Chinese-American, and Marine Biologist, I urge you to sign AB 376 (The Shark Protection Act) into law. The shark fin ban has nothing to do with racism; it is solely an issue of sustainability. More than 73 million sharks a year are brutally slaughtered by having their fins cut off and the still alive shark is thrown back into the ocean to die a slow agonizing death. Shark finning is a wasteful practice that only fulfills the need for a perceived luxury item known as shark fin soup. Sharks are at the very top of the food chain and when they disappear, every organism down to the tiniest of plankton is affected-including all the seafood we eat. Sharks already face declining numbers due to being caught as bycatch from the often overzealous fishing industry, due to a reduced food supply because of overfishing, due to global warming and the ensuing ocean acidification, and due to pollution from garbage as well as chemicals. Let us cross off shark finning from that long list of threats. Thousands of sharks will be saved a year from this law, and as other states and nations follow California’s lead, eventually millions of sharks will be saved for future generations to respect and protect.
Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely,
Cherilyn Chin Jose

send your letter today!
update: as of October 2011, California has banned the sale, purchase or possession shark fins, and restaurants have until January of 2013 to use up their existing stock

Domino the Whale Shark on Shark Finning

Domino the Whale Shark (picture by Cherilyn Chin)

The Poster Shark for Shark Finning

Hello, my name is Domino, and I am a Whale Shark. I think I should be the poster animal for the ending of shark finning. It might be hard to relate to other sharks that are (supposedly) so menacing, ruthless, and with a mouthful of razor sharp teeth, but look at me! I was named after the gentle giants of the sea, the whales. Whale sharks are every bit as magnificent as whales, yet most humans have not heard of us.

Are you a whale, or a shark?

Humans inevitably ask, are you a whale? Or are you a shark? I am unequivocally a shark. In fact, I am the world’s largest fish as well as the world’s largest shark. My mouth is full of teeth, but my teeth are only 1/12th of an inch (3 mm) long and I don’t even use them to eat! I only eat tiny, microscopic plankton that I filter from the water around me.

I’m unique!

I can grow to be more than 40 feet (12 meters) long and weigh more than 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg). I also have a unique pattern of spots interspersed with occasional stripes that is not found on any other animal! In fact no other whale shark shares my unique polka dot and stripe pattern. It’s my fingerprint, to put it into human terms.

My “Squished” Head

I have a unique body shape, as my head is dorsoventrally compressed. This means that my head is “squished” flat, almost like a pancake, with my 4 foot wide mouth in front. Most sharks have the distinctive sharp snout with a mouth underneath their head that you picture when you hear the name “shark.”

How I am like other sharks

I share some other characteristics with the “other” sharks, like I do not have any bones in my body. My body is made up of cartilage, which is found in human ears and noses. Like other sharks, my thick skin is made up of denticles, or very tiny teeth, which makes our skin rough like sandpaper. These denticles make us sharks very streamlined, and able to swim very swiftly and quietly through the water. My 4 inch (10.2 cm) skin is also the thickest of any animal on earth!

Shark Finning

One very important characteristic I share with all other sharks is the worldwide market for our fins. These are turned into a dish humans eat called shark fin soup. I was flattered–for all of a second–to find out that my fins are highly sought after because they are the largest of any shark. Well, the basking shark has larger fins, but less of it is edible. Whale shark fins are made into the most expensive bowls of shark fin soup. Our meat supposedly tastes and feels like tofu, but most of the time the fishing boats don’t have enough room for our large bodies.

Not only is shark finning barbaric (often only the fins are sliced off a shark and it is tossed back still alive into the ocean to die a slow death), but it is wasteful as the whole shark is not utilized in any way. It’s sad to swim by a once powerful shark that is now unable to swim without its fins.

The Food Chain

I get angry because removing such large numbers of top level predators from the food chain affects the availability of my food (the microscopic plants and animals at the bottom of the food chain). All the seafood humans harvest from the ocean is affected. Killing up to 100 million sharks a year is not sustainable! Although the food chain is very complex, there is an elegant order to it. It is like the food pyramid humans follow for eating. My food (the plankton) is at the base of the pyramid, and sharks are at the very top. The ocean could not sustain having as many sharks as sardines, so there are very few of us sharks to begin with.

I’m a shark but…

I lament being categorized with great white sharks and their menacing reputation. They have their very important place at the top of the food chain, but it is guilt by association. If humans only knew that shark finning included killing gentle and magnificent whale sharks such as myself, I think they could begin to understand our plight. Little by little I think humans are beginning to protect us by banning shark finning in some waters, creating shark sanctuaries, and banning the import, sale and distribution of shark fins. Even though all I share with the whales is my name, size, and the fact that some of us are plankton feeders, I think it is fortuitous. I hope someday humans will stop hunting us for our large fins, and start to revere us like whales. We are just as amazing, and just as gentle.

To see how you can help visit COARE or APAOHA
Also see Snorkeling with Whale Sharks off of Cancun, Mexico
And Domino the Whale Shark Gets Freed From a Net!

Banning shark fin sales in California: A Chinese-American Marine Biologist’s View

great white shark picture
Great White Shark (photo by Cherilyn Chin Jose)

I am a Chinese-American and a marine biologist and I fully support California Assembly Bill (AB) 376 to ban the sale and distribution of shark fins in California.  Hawaii has already banned the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins.  I have eaten (and enjoyed) dozens of bowls of shark fin soup in my lifetime but I will no longer do that.  My only regret so far in life is that I chose to serve shark fin soup (instead of melon or white fungus soup) at my wedding because of the strong symbolism behind serving it. 

You might be thinking that since I’m a marine biologist *of course* she’ll be on the side of the sharks or any other creature of the oceans.  But while I respect sharks and their role in the ocean food chain, they are not among my favorite animals of the ocean.  I think that Peter Benchley, the author of the book and movie “Jaws,” really made me realize how important sharks are to humans alive.  Although he is responsible for the way most of us fear and vilify sharks, he was also one of their strongest proponents.  He wrote a book called “Shark Trouble” in 2002.  In it he wrote a fictional tale of what would happen to a self sustaining seaside village if sharks were taken from their coral reefs.  In this tale, foreign fishing vessels removed the sharks from a coral reef community in a matter of days.  But the devastating effects lasted much longer as the entire economy of this fictional village collapsed, and the native fishermen did not even start the downward spiral of their economy!  But soon fiction may turn into non-fiction. It has been observed that octopus populations increase once shark populations decrease, and the octopuses end up eating lots of lobsters or crabs from fishermen’s traps! One real life study concluded that the decline of big sharks leads to an increase of small elasmobranchs (sharks and their relatives like rays and skates) that feast on the shellfish that humans eat, like scallops and oysters. 

It is estimated 70 million sharks are killed each year for their fins.  Many sharks do not reach sexual maturity until they are 7 years old, and some large sharks do not reach sexual maturity until their 20’s.  Even then the females only have a few surviving pups.  Even in utero (in the womb) fetal sharks will eat their own brothers and sisters! 

Illegal shark fin sales around the world number at least 1 billion dollars and is (supposedly) second only to drugs like marijuana in illegal trafficking.  Those numbers can certainly be disputed as it is impossible to really track illegal sales, but the point is that in many developing countries, a single shark fin can feed a fisherman’s family for months.  These poor fishermen are not aware that 39 species of sharks are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a threatened (one step away from being endangered) species and that the killing of one shark today means no more sharks tomorrow.  They rarely just kill one, and the whole shark is rarely fully utilized because of the limited space on the fishing vessels.  The sharks are targeted specifically when possible because of the amount of money the fins are worth.  Even the gentle, slow moving Whale Shark, that eats only microscopic plankton, is targeted!  But the consumers of shark fin soup are not living in poverty and can understand that killing the top level predators of any ecosystem cannot last forever.  When was the last time you ate a bear, lion or bald eagle?  These are top level predators on land and humans know that eating them would not be sustainable.  But because the oceans seem so vast and with an endless amount of fish, humans outside the ocean conservation community have yet to grasp that the wildlife supply of the oceans is not endless.  Over 90% of the large fish populations, including sharks, tuna, marlin, swordfish, halibut, and cod are gone (see Scientific American article). Gone forever.  While the supermarket freezer cases are full of fresh fish and you can still order tuna sushi at your local Japanese restaurant, there does not seem any urgency to conserving any fish species.

Some countries around the world (United States included) ban shark finning in their waters.  Palau even created a shark sanctuary in which it is illegal to catch any sharks.  But all nations only have jurisdiction on the 200 nautical mile Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) from their shores.  The rest is international waters.  Often large fleets from foreign countries will swoop in on a developing countries’ waters and take all the fish (including sharks) and then leave.  Some developed countries will pay less developed countries money to let them fish in their waters, but this happens less often then you might hope.

There is much more to this discussion and I know there are always two sides to every story.  I hope that reading my side of the story will at least help you understand why someone would want to stop eating shark fin soup, let alone live in a state like California that wants to ban the sale and distribution of shark fins.  Respect the facts, the opinions of others and follow your own heart.

Ollie the Octopus on Octopus Day and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Ollie the Octopus
Ollie the Octopus (photo by Cherilyn Chin)

Hi, my name is Ollie and I’m an octopus.  I am excited to hear that October 8 is Octopus Day during International Cephalopod Awareness Days (October 8-10).  I’m glad we’re getting the recognition we deserve, as we’re usually portrayed as villains (or villainesses) or as cute baby toys with our mouths underneath our eyes. Our mouth is actually underneath our head, and in the center of our circle of 8 arms.

I wish I could have compassion (like humans!) for the other life forms in the sea, but in order to survive I only think about myself.  I need avoid being eaten, find enough food to eat every day, and defend my den.  Since I don’t know my birthday and a calendar doesn’t fit inside my modest sized lair, I think Octopus Day is a good time for me to reflect on my life, or rather the state of the oceans.

It’s looking pretty bleak out there because due to global warming there is a rise in seawater temperature, rising sea levels, ocean acidification (see previous post from me and Terry the Pteropod), and coral bleaching.  There is pollution from land runoff, overfishing (see post Great White Shark’s Adventure), oil spills, and growing garbage patches in all the world’s oceans.

The most well known is called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” which is a fancy name for a whole lot of crap thrown into the ocean by humans. Most of this garbage is plastic, which will never biodegrade. In fact, all the plastic ever manufactured is still around today, unless it was incinerated. I do know an octopus who lives in a glass beer bottle, but plastic isn’t useful to any denizen of the ocean I know of.  In fact, most sea life ingest tiny bits of plastic, as well as plastic chemical by-products, which bioaccumulate on up the food chain until you (or the 10% of sharks, large predatory fish or marine mammals left in the oceans) eat us.  Yuck!  Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellies, and albatrosses and other sea birds become entangled in plastic when they try to dive for fish.

So my wish this Octopus Day is that you reduce the amount of plastic you buy, recycle what you do buy, and use a reusable water bottle.  Unless you’re one of the one billion persons on this planet who do not have access to clean drinking water (my guess you wouldn’t be reading this if you are), tap water or filtered tap water is fine!!  I wish I could filter the water I live in…

Terry the Pteropod on Ocean Acidification

Hello, my name is Terry and I’m a pteropod.  What exactly is a pteropod?  Well, I’m also called a sea butterfly and I have been described as a “coffee bean with wings.”  What I really am is a marine snail that is about the size of a lentil, which is less than half an inch long.  My terrestrial snail cousins have a hard shell on the outside and a soft body inside, while my shell is on my inside and my gelatinous goo is on the outside.

Why am I important?  Well if polar bears are the poster animals for the melting polar ice caps due to global warming, then I am the poster invertebrate for ocean acidificationOcean acidification is also due to global warming as a rise in ocean temperatures can cause seawater pH to drop and become more acidic.

So how does the ocean become more acidic?  Well the same carbon dioxide emissions that warm our atmosphere and cause global warming ultimately become absorbed by the oceans.  The oceans cover more than 70% of the planet.  Carbon dioxide dissolves in water and make it more acidic, like soda.  While the seawater in the ocean is not turning into Coke, a sprinkle here and there of acidic water can have devastating effects on ocean life.

Ocean acidification will directly affect me, my descendents, and my planktonic peers as my inner shell will dissolve as the water around me becomes more acidic. I will die. While I have a fairly short lifespan of a few months (to years if I escape being eaten!) to begin with, it is the new gap in the bottom of the food chain that will be troubling.  Fish won’t have anything to eat, and the larger animals that eat them will be hungry too.  Imagine if on land all the grass and insects suddenly got wiped out.  Then everything from birds, deer, and bears would be scrambling around for new food sources or face extinction.

So, what can you do to help?  What you are hopefully already doing to curb global warming: driving less, carpooling, taking public transportation, and exploring the use of alternative energies.  The 3 R’s help too: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.  Also support efforts to create Marine Protected Areas around the globe.  Less than 1% of the oceans are protected versus 12% of land being protected. Don’t forget to spread the word, as we can all make a difference by being informed!

UPDATE DECEMBER 2012: Scientists have found that pteropods are being affected by ocean acidification now, as opposed to a previous prediction of 2038. Link to article here

Ollie the Octopus and Ocean Acidification Definition

Octopus
Ollie the Octopus (photo by Cherilyn Chin)

Meet Ollie the Octopus and learn the ocean acidification definition

Hello, my name is Ollie, and I’m an Octopus.  I will give the ocean acidification definition shortly! Welcome to my blog entry, told from the point-of-view of an octopus.  I am ecstatic to have found myself a human translator (or is she an octopus translator??) named Cherilyn.  I chose a blog to get my thoughts and feelings across as I will only live to be 2-3 years old at most and it is very urgent that I share the many changes happening to my watery world now!

Ocean Acidification is due to Global Warming

My human translator recently told me about a documentary she watched, “A Sea Change,” which is about ocean acidification due to global warming.  All I could think was eek, my beak (mouth) and radula (teeth) will start to dissolve soon and they don’t make dentures for octopuses!  Also within a few octopus generations (and definitely within your human lifetime), my coral reef may be dead.  Yes, the corals that pre-date humans by thousands of years will be gone in a blink of geologic time.  Sure the earth and her oceans over millions of years can deal with the rise of temperatures in both the atmosphere and ocean, but ocean acidification may be the straw that broke the camel shrimp’s back. 

Ocean Acidification Definition

The ocean acidification definition is that all the little animals and plants that build up the massive coral reefs (which are visible from outer space!) will be gone if the saltwater they live in becomes more acidic and dissolves their calcium carbonate skeletons.  My favorite foods, crabs and shrimps, will be gone if they can no longer make their exoskeletons.  No longer will my worst nightmares consist of the “baby octopus bowls” served at Japanese restaurants.  No, it will be that I have no food to eat, and to boot, no place to live!

Stop destroying my ocean!

One in four ocean creatures lives on a coral reef and I believe there isn’t a more beautiful and productive place on earth.  In fact my human translator called coral reefs “heaven in the ocean” after a SCUBA dive in the South Pacific.  From what I’ve heard, due to industrialization, humans have caused massive destruction to the beautiful land all across the earth by exploiting her once plentiful resources.  I’m not looking forward to what humans can do to the oceans, nor can I ignore what they already have done. 

No part of the once thought of massive, untouchable and exotic oceans are left unscathed by the reaches of man.  There is no pristine anything anymore—from pollution caused by runoff from the land, to carbon dioxide and other chemicals spewed into the air that eventually make their way into the oceans (oceans cover more than 70% of the so called “earth”), to the overfishing of large predatory fish.  But increasingly (and supposedly) efficient methods of fishing are wiping out entire schools of both small and large fish in a blink of an eye and leaving nothing but millions of fish scales to sink to the bottom of the ocean forever.  Don’t get me started about the coral bleaching due to global warming, as seeing dead patches of coral really makes me want to really ink someone! 

In conclusion:

I’m glad I only live a few years at most.  If I successfully reproduce, I hope my offspring will have a healthy coral reef to live on, and food to eat.  I hope for your human offspring’s sake they don’t ask someday, “why are there no more coral reefs in the ocean? Or more importantly, “why didn’t you do anything to stop the destruction of the coral reefs?” 

You Can Help!!

Fortunately there is still time, and there is still hope.  Although only 1% of all the money donated to conservation causes is ocean related, you can make a difference one cent and one dollar at a time.  It costs nothing to sign on-line petitions, e-mail your local Senators or Representatives or to just to stay informed (follow my human interpreter on twitter @protectoceans or visit protecttheoceans.org.  Tell just one person what you’ve learned today and hopefully someday your grandchildren, after peeking underwater at a coral reef for the first time, or seeing a whale surface and spout in the ocean, will thank you for helping to protect the oceans and its inhabitants from destruction by mankind.

More from Ollie the Octopus:Ollie the Octopus on International Cephalopod Awareness Days and the State of the Oceans

Ollie the Octopus on Coral Reef Bleaching and the Great Barrier Reef

Ollie the Octopus and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Great White Shark’s Adventure at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

great white shark, Monterey Bay Aquarium
Great White Shark photo by: Cherilyn Chin

Hello, I’m a Great White Shark. My ancestors and I have been roaming the oceans since before there were dinosaurs on earth. We have been the kings and queens of the sea…until now. Humans have made the oceans unsafe for me and my fellow sharks. Not only is the water we swim in dirty with garbage and chemical pollutants, but we are being fished and killed nearly to extinction because of shark finning.

And unlike most fish that are fully utilized, just our fins are cut off. This is because our fins are used in Asia for a delicacy called shark fin soup. To add insult to injury, finned sharks are most often thrown back in to ocean alive to die a slow, agonizing death. What hurts another shark hurts me too, as it is almost unbearable to see a fellow shark alive for days on end, and unable to swim due to missing fins.

Recently, I went on an exciting adventure. I was accidentally caught in a fishing net and taken on board a fishing boat. I was sure I was going to die like many of my friends before me. But I was lucky, and I was taken alive! I first went to a very large outdoor ocean pen where I could swim freely. I was fed fish off a stick. It was quite a treat to not have to catch my own food! How long will this luxury last, I kept wondering to myself.

I was later transported in a large tanker truck to the Monterey Bay Aquarium where I was put into the Open Sea tank. While the fat tuna in the tank looked tantalizing enough to eat, I enjoyed being fed salmon by a pole. I would have preferred to catch my own meals, but it was fun being lazy! I saw many people each day through the aquarium window. I loved the transfixed looks of awe on their faces when I swam past. The flashes were annoying, but luckily they didn’t happen very often (thank you docents!).

I felt myself growing larger each day. One day I sensed one of the yellowfin tuna getting weaker from sickness. Once I smell blood in the water, my primitive instincts kick in and chomp! I bit hard into that tuna. That got many of the marine biologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium worried that I was getting too big for my britches, as well as too large for the tank.

Before I knew it, I was in a stretcher on my way back to the tanker transport truck. They stuck a satellite tag onto my back so they could track where I traveled in the ocean. The tag eventually popped off and sent information back to the marine biologists that told of my travels. But before the tag popped off, each time I felt the tag as I swam through the open ocean I remembered my great adventure to and from the Monterey Bay Aquarium!

Also see 10 Cool Shark Facts: Your Questions Answered!

For more on sharks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium click here