Spotted Eagle Ray Conservation Program


Kim Bassos-Hull
Senior Biologist; Principal Investigator
In 2009, Mote Marine Laboratory with the National Aquarium in Baltimore initiated a conservation research program on the life history, reproduction, and population status of the elasmobranch Aetobatus narinari, commonly known as the spotted eagle ray.

It is illegal to fish for or kill spotted eagle rays in Florida waters, but they aren’t protected under federal laws 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 not enough information to determine how much danger they’re in. The distribution, migration, feeding habits, growth rates and reproductive biology of spotted eagle rays are poorly defined.

Since the program's beginning, Mote biologists have sampled, tagged and released more than 300 spotted eagle rays off the Southwest Florida coast to better gain a better understanding of the population structure and life history of this species in the Gulf of Mexico.

In our three-year study of this species, we have observed a declining trend in numbers of rays observed in aerial and boat surveys.  By expanding our studies into other areas of the Gulf and continuing our surveys along Florida’s Southwest coast, we will be able to better define population trends for this species.

Mote's goals are two-fold:
  • Gain knowledge about species populations in the Gulf of Mexico through the study of key life history traits;
  • Raise public awareness and enhance conservation outreach and education on spotted eagle rays.

Current Projects

Spotted Eagle Ray Surveys
Mote staff perform monthly on-water and aerial surveys to estimate and document relative abundance and distribution.

Tagging and Genetic Sampling
To identify where these rays migrate, Mote has tagged animals with traditional tags and with satellite tags that allow the rays’ movements to be followed as they travel. Mote scientists are also collaborating with researchers in Mexico to collect genetic samples from rays caught in fisheries. These samples are being analyzed by a geneticist at the California Academy of Sciences, which will help determine population structure and connectivity in the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo Identification
Photographs of each spotted eagle ray that is captured for tagging are carefully taken to show the animal’s unique spot pattern. These images are placed in a digital photo catalogue that utilizes a special software program that records each ray’s spot patterns. If a ray is recaptured, this software can show how the spots have changed over time. This catalogue also allows researchers to assess the ray for any other changes, including growth.

Education and Conservation Outreach
A core component of this program is education and outreach to a variety of groups:
  • Divers, boaters and anglers and through a spotted eagle ray reporting form
  • Colleagues in the scientific and conservation fields
  • Students, both high school and college students
  • The public at large

Partners and Supporters
We would like to thank our conservation partners and supporters.

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About Us

Mote Marine Laboratory has been a leader in marine research since it was founded in 1955. Today, we incorporate public outreach as a key part of our mission. Mote is an independent nonprofit organization and has seven centers for marine research, the public Mote Aquarium and an Education Division specializing in public programs for all ages.

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