Mote Marine Laboratory researchers are asking for the public's help documenting spotted eagle rays, stunning and gentle creatures but a mysterious species whose movement patterns in the wild are mostly unknown to science, one researcher said.
Mote biologist Kim Hull, who is studying eagle rays in the wild, will explain her work and how divers, anglers, snorkelers and boaters can help Mote look for eagle-ray hot spots in the Florida Keys.
Her talk will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in Key West.
Hull has focused her work mainly in the waters off Sarasota, but has developed partnerships on eagle ray conservation with researchers in Cuba and Mexico and is hoping to expand her research to the Florida Keys, she said.
"We don't know where to start down there," Hull said. "We are trying to find the hot spots ....We are already reaching out to different agencies."
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, like the ones off Sarasota do, Hull said.
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, Hull said. Mote scientists have been documenting the rays in the waters off Sarasota using boat and airplane surveys, photo identification, identification tags and genetic sampling, she said.
"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," the marine scientist said. "If we can find hot spots 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. 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, Hull said.
Eagle rays are not the most prolific species when it comes to reproduction. The have one to four pups a year, Hull said.
They are heavily harvested in places like Mexico, mostly as food. 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, Mote's monitoring efforts for eagle rays will by coordinated with MEERA (Marine Ecosystem Event Response and Assessment) -- a Mote program designed to monitor coral bleaching and disease, algal blooms, invasive species impacts and other environmental changes in Keys waters.
"We (MEERA) already are the eyes in the water," said Mote biologist Cory Walter, who oversees MEERA and will introduce the eagle ray talk on Thursday.
The talk will be at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Eco-Discovery Center, 33 East Quay Road in Key West.