Tuesday, 22 November 2016 00:00

I first learned about manta rays as an undergrad student while watching a BBC documentary called Land of the Tiger. That particular episode was about India’s coastline and its rich marine habitats. Every minute of that episode (and all other episodes of that series) was packed with information, and was a visual treat. However, the image that will always remain in my mind’s eye is that of the manta ray whose elegant and serene gliding movement reminded me of a bird in flight underwater, all in slow motion. I’ve lost count of how many times I hit the rewind button to watch that clip over and over again.

Manta rays are cartilaginous fish, and are close relatives of sharks and other rays. They have large triangular pectoral fins (or wings) that measure 5 to 7 m across. This explains the name "manta," which means "cloak" or "blanket" in Spanish. Mantas feed on plankton, and live in warm waters in the tropical, sub-tropical and temperate regions of the world. They have been sighted along the coastline, in coral reefs, as well as in the deep sea.

Two different species of manta rays exist, and they vary in size, habitat preference, and distribution. The reef manta rays (Manta alfredi) are smaller in size, and prefer shallow waters and reefs in tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. There have been sightings of the species in the Atlantic Ocean, as well. In comparison, the giant manta rays (Manta birostris) have a wide distribution in the tropical and temperate waters of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. The life span of mantas is estimated to be over 25 years.

Despite their worldwide distribution, manta rays have been classified as vulnerable by the IUCN1 due to targeted fishing (their gill plates are used in traditional Chinese medicine) and accidental by-catch. Adding to their vulnerability status is the fact that mantas have a long gestation period of 12 months,2 and usually give birth to only one pup at a time. Tourism-related industries may also have a negative impact on the species and its habitat. Total population numbers are unknown, but subpopulations of mantas are small (giant mantas have 100–1000 members; reef mantas have 100–2000 members), and experts suspect a global decline of 30% in the manta population.

Steps are being taken to protect the species, as seen in Indonesia and Peru, both of which have imposed a ban on manta fishing. As of early 2016, 13 countries had imposed regulations, providing varying degrees of manta ray protection. On an international level, mantas were listed on CMS3 Appendices I and II in 2011, and as a result, harvesting of these species is no longer permitted (with exceptions for traditional subsistence users). In 2014, mantas were included in Appendix II of CITES  to “ensure that international commercial trade is strictly regulated to ensure its sustainability, legality, and traceability for the long-term survival of the species in the wild.” There are recommendations for trade moratoriums (for import and sale of gill rakers), consumer education (regarding unproven claims regarding benefits of gill raker tonic), responsible ecotourism initiatives, and regular monitoring and enforcement of protective measures. As individuals, we can contribute by raising awareness within our circle of influence, volunteering, or making donations to organizations such as the Manta Trust, the Manta Pacific Research Foundation, or those that focus on conserving the marine ecosystem itself such as the Marine Conservation Society.

I do hope that these multiple conservation efforts help the mantas to thrive, and that we continue to learn more about these gentle giants.


1International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

2This is the information available for reef manta rays. The gestation period for giant manta rays is unknown as per the IUCN. Some sources suggest the gestation period is 13 months.

3Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals

4Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora



1. Marshall, A., Bennett, M.B., Kodja, G., Hinojosa-Alvarez, S., Galvan-Magana, F., Harding, M., Stevens, G. & Kashiwagi, T. 2011. Manta birostris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2011: e.T198921A9108067. (http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2011-2.RLTS.T198921A9108067.en). (Accessed: 14/11/16)
2. Marshall, A., Kashiwagi, T., Bennett, M.B., Deakos, M., Stevens, G., McGregor, F., Clark, T., Ishihara, H. & Sato, K. 2011. Manta alfredi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2011: e.T195459A8969079. (http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2011-2.RLTS.T195459A8969079.en). (Accessed: 14/11/16)
3. Manta Trust (http://www.mantatrust.org/about-mantas/mantas-at-a-glance/) (Accessed: 01/11/16)
4. Heinrichs, Shawn, O’Malley, Mary, Medd, Hannah and Hilton, Paul (2011). The Global Threat to Manta and Mobula rays. Manta Ray of Hope (http://www.mantarayofhope.com/learn/about-manta-and-mobula-rays/taxonomy-morphology-and-distribution/) (Accessed: 10/11/16)
5. Neme, Laurel (2016). “New Protections For World's Largest Population of Giant Manta Rays”. National Geographic (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/01/160108-manta-rays-conservation-wildaid-traditional-medicine-china-bycatch-peru/) (Accessed: 14/11/16)
6. Mantaray-World (http://www.mantaray-world.com/manta-ray-habitat/) (Accessed: 11/11/16)
7. Shuraleff II, G. 2000. "Manta birostris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. (http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Manta_birostris/) (Accessed: 10/11/16)
8. CITES Press Release (2014). Stronger protection for five shark species and all manta rays. (https://cites.org/eng/shark_ray_listings_come_into_effect.php) (Accessed: 14/11/16)
9. CMS (2012). COP10 Outcome: Migratory Manta Ray under CMS Protection (http://www.cms.int/en/news/cop10-outcome-migratory-manta-ray-under-cms-protection) (Accessed: 14/11/16)

Wednesday, 27 July 2016 00:00

The Rainbow Warrior is Greenpeace's signature campaign ship. It sails around the world fighting for environmental justice. The ship carries scientific equipment and has been known to seek out and stand up against environmental injustice. The ship has also defended whales against hunting and interrupted nuclear testing.

The first Rainbow Warrior was launched in 1978. It was bombed by French secret agents in 1985 to prevent Greenpeace from interfering with France's nuclear testing. The second Rainbow Warrior was retired in 2011 at the same time that the third Rainbow Warrior was launched.

Greenpeace's first two Warriors were retrofitted ships. For Warrior III, they were able to create a custom-built ship with more sustainable materials. Rainbow Warrior III is faster than most ships her size and is capable of 14 knots. The ship has three decks that house a campaign office with onboard Wi-Fi, a communication center with satellite capability, a fifty-person conference room, a mess hall and kitchen, a hospital room, crew quarters, lifeboats, rescue boats, and a helicopter pad.

Here is a cool video about the new custom-designed ship.


Wednesday, 11 May 2016 00:00


This year, my family and I found a really unique way to spend Mother’s Day.

While we did some of the usual things, like having lunch at one of our favorite restaurants and perusing the nearby gift shop, we also went on a tour at the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary. As a country girl myself, I have had the privilege of getting close and personal with all kinds of domesticated animals. This includes most farm animals. However, the trip still proved to be exciting, educational, and fun.

The sanctuary was originally founded by Jenny Brown and Doug Abel in 2004. Their first rescues were a small group of chickens from a factory farm and a rooster dumped in a NYC schoolyard. The original location was a roughly 23-acre property located just outside of Woodstock, NY. As the sanctuary has grown, continuing to rescue more and more animals, so has its needs. To accommodate these growing needs, the sanctuary relocated to a far larger property of over 150 acres located in High Falls, NY. And while they may have started with rescuing chickens, the sanctuary has now rescued a menagerie of animals, including turkeys, pigs, cows, sheep, goats, rabbits, ducks, a llama, and a donkey.

There is a small entrance fee to visit the sanctuary, but tours are included at no additional cost. If visitors are interested, there are many other ways of supporting the sanctuary financially, such as becoming a member or sponsoring an individual animal. We paid our fee and followed the slow winding road, with views of the animals and animal shelters all around, until we got to the visitors’ parking. We then gathered outside the visitors’ center and waited for the tour to start. Our tour was led by Kate Skwire, the sanctuary’s humane educator. Our tour then began with a trip to the chickens, where we were given a brief but highly informative rundown of the cruelties and realities of commercial chicken farming for meat and eggs. To the delight of every visitor, and the chickens, we were allowed go in with the birds and feed them grapes.

The tour proceeded in similar fashion. With each animal we visited, we were educated about the animals’ living conditions and quality of life within the food industry. The passion and advocacy for animal rights was clearly evident with each staff member and volunteer of the sanctuary. The animals were a delight. Elvis the bull was rather picky about his treats, preferring beets and carrots to the sweet peppers that were also offered. The pigs seemed more than happy to indulge in a belly rub or an ear scratch.

Perhaps the most exciting group of all were the kids, or, in case you are wondering what I am talking about, the baby goats. They were such a delight as they played king of the mountain and got up close and personal with the visitors. One woman had her purse thoroughly investigated, while other visitors had to watch that their buttons and zippers didn’t become snacking material. In many ways, they were akin to a group of rambunctious puppies wanting nothing more than to frolic and play.

On our trip, I found that the Woodstock Farm Sanctuary fulfills their mission of rescuing and rehabilitating farm animals and serving as a place for the public to become educated about the all-to-common cruelties of modern agribusiness. A large component of that education lies within the face-to-face interactions. Many visitors, having never seen a chicken, pig, or any other farm animal in person, may not think of them as emotional beings. Because of the extraordinary level of care these animals are now provided, the animals’ personalities are evident.

If you are interested in learning more, you can visit the sanctuary’s website: www.woodstocksanctuary.org.

There are also similar organizations in the Portland area:


Tuesday, 15 March 2016 00:00

Whenever possible, I buy eggs from a local farmer. I tend to pay a few more dollars, but the advantages of seeing the hens’ living conditions firsthand, reducing my carbon footprint from egg transportation and storage, and supporting small farmers, far outweigh the small additional cost.

When I need eggs in a pinch and can’t find a local farmer, I hit the grocery store. Inevitably, I spend ten minutes staring at the cartons of eggs, wracking my brain about the terminology. "Cage-free," "free-range," "organic," "farm-fresh," "natural"... even in natural food stores and local co-ops, egg labels can be confusing! 

The cost per carton is usually a dead giveaway for how the hens are treated, but those wanting a more educated approach to egg purchases can find a lot of blog posts offering translations of U.S. egg labels, including one from the USDAThis post from NPR was the most helpful for me, and had the added bonuses of an entire page of punny comments and no heart-wrenching pictures of chickens in cages like many other blog posts I read. 

I’ve now committed the terminology to memory. But wouldn’t it be easier if we had this information at our fingertips while we shop? 

We recently spent some time in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, where Overwaitea Food Group (OFG) manages several major supermarket chains. In 2014, OFG was the first grocery chain in North America to provide "Cage Eggs" signage on all of its stores’ shelves. Not just vague terms like the ones above—actual descriptions of the hens’ living conditions. Pretty cool!

Egg Labels

Here is the complete list of OFG’s labels and descriptions:

  • Cage-Free Organic: “hens roam organic pasture, vegetarian feed”
  • Cage-Free Free-Range: “hens roam indoors & outdoors”
  • Cage-Free Free-Run: “hens roam indoors only”
  • Cage Eggs: “hens in cages, behaviours restricted”

Remember, these are Canadian labels that are not necessarily compatible with U.S. labels. They don’t include details like how much time the hens spend inside versus outside, average square foot per hen, etc. And the fact that OFG had a label for “Cage-Free Organic” eggs did not guarantee that each store actually carried cage-free organic eggs. The point is that we've never seen the descriptions so clearly laid out, at least not in a large supermarket chain like this. It’s a great step toward helping the average consumer make better-informed egg purchases.

Ideally, someday we will be able to shop in our own backyard for eggs like many of our farmer friends.


Until then, we’ll keep supporting local farmers and doing our best to make thoughtful egg purchases when we do need to shop at the grocery store. We’d love to see our U.S. supermarkets follow OFG’s egg labeling model, but we’re not even sure where to start—any ideas?