Wild stingray encounter marred by reef fish decline

Smooth stingray waits to be fed. Pic: Blue Planet Society

Australia's south west offers a little-known wildlife experience that's hard to beat. At Hamelin Bay near Augusta huge wild smooth stingrays and eagle rays regularly come to the beach to be hand-fed by eager visitors.

Possibly unique in Australia, this behaviour began in the 1950s and 1960s when commercial fishermen cleaned their catch offshore. Today a fish-cleaning table for recreational anglers provides a seemingly endless supply of offcuts for the visiting rays.

Eagle ray (nearest) and smooth stingray. Pic: Blue Planet Society

For the marine conservationist this creates a dilemma. Many reef fish species caught by the anglers are in steep decline, so in the process of having a once-in-a-lifetime experience you may also be indirectly contributing to the ruination of Australia's offshore reef ecosystems.

Discarded juvenile western blue groper head.  Pic: Blue Planet Society

The overfishing of large reef fish has caused stocks to crash worldwide, and recreational angling is a significant contributing factor. Many reef fish species are long-lived, slow-growing and only present in relatively small numbers. Even moderate fishing pressure can have a dire effect. Add to this the lack of sufficient marine protected areas, inadequate fish stock assessments, and the outlook for fish like the western blue groper is bleak.

Stingray taking food from the hand of a tourist. Pic: Blue Planet Society

The rays themselves, which generate significant tourist income, have absolutely no legal protection. In January 2011 two young fishermen speared and butchered a tailless stingray nicknamed 'stumpy' in front of horrified onlookers. A plan to offer the rays more protection was drawn up in 2006 but is still awaiting approval. This lack of legal protection combined with the decline of reef ecosystems due to overfishing may see the end of the visiting rays and the priceless wildlife experience that they provide.

Update: Since this blog was written the Hamelin Bay rays have been given limited protection in the vicinity of the beach.

Hamelin Bay with angler boat ramp. Pic: Blue Planet Society