Closely related to sharks, stingrays are remarkably graceful animals. Gliding along the bottom of the water like big, slow-moving flying carpets, they are among the most beautiful of sea creatures. Most stingrays grow slowly, mature late and give birth to very few young, which makes them very susceptible to overfishing. The cowtail stingray, found in the waters of Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia, is one of the most commonly hunted species in the booming international trade in stingray leather.
For decades, these rays had been caught and killed incidentally in shrimp and fish trawls. Now, however, fishermen are directly targeting them and killing them in huge numbers to satisfy the growing demand for their skin. Numerous marine biologists believe that the trend is contributing to their rapid decline and, if left unchecked, may lead to the complete collapse of their populations. There are currently more than 500 Internet retailers of stingray leather, and the number is increasing each year. In the United States, the importation of stingray leather goods doubled in the late 1990s, and in Indonesia one retailer estimated that two million rays are caught each year in that country alone, with some boats bringing in up to 30 metric tons of stingrays per trip.
None of the Southeast Asian countries in which the Cowtail ray is being caught have systems in place to regulate the catching of these animals, much less insure their continued abundance. Indeed, no reliable assessments have been done looking into the health of these ray populations, and no records are kept regarding how many are caught each year. However, scientists familiar with the problems affecting Cowtail rays and other species of stingrays worldwide, believe that the numbers are simply unsustainable. They argue that unless steps are taken by individual countries or on the international level to significantly reduce the catch of these animals, they are at grave risk of disappearing.
On land, the commercial exploitation of wild animals for the international market is taken seriously. Experience has shown that sooner rather than later the animals in question suffer rapid declines, with some species, like the Siberian tiger and the mountain gorilla, being driven to the point of near extinction in the wild. Creatures of the sea are no exception.
While science can help us to better understand what is happening to these denizens of the sea, governments should place restrictions on the catch of stingrays, businesses should stop selling fancy shoes and accessories made with stingray leather, and consumers should stop buying the goods.
Joshua Reichert directs the Environment Program at The Pew Charitable Trusts.