Mossel Bay | Garden Route

Ethical Handling of Stingrays: A Guide for Responsible Anglers

Short tail stingray photographed at Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town
Short-tail stingrays (Bathytoshia brevicaudata)

We obviously love fishing, along with the millions of others who enjoy this pastime around the world. Whether you fish for sport, sustenance, or simply relaxation, casting a line into the water connects us with nature’s bounty. However, with this enjoyment comes a responsibility to ensure the ethical treatment of the creatures we encounter. This is why we’ve written this guide, to emphasise the importance of ethical handling, particularly when it comes to often-overlooked species, like stingrays.

Understanding Ethical Handling

Ethical handling in fishing encompasses a range of practices aimed at minimising harm to aquatic life and preserving the ecosystems that they inhabit. It involves respect for the environment, sustainable fishing methods, and humane treatment of caught fish and other marine animals.

A rock and surf angler at sunrise, holding a long surf fishing rod
Stingrays are frequently caught by rock and surf anglers

Responsible Angling Practices

Catch and Release Techniques:

Catch-and-release fishing can be a valuable conservation tool when carried out properly. Use barbless hooks to minimise injury and handle fish with care to reduce stress. Ensure proper revival by gently cradling the fish in the water until it swims away under its own power.

Proper Gear Selection:

Choose appropriate tackle and gear matched to the size and species you’re targeting. Heavy-duty gear intended for larger species like sharks can cause unnecessary harm to smaller fish and non-target species.

Avoiding Overfishing:

Familiarise yourself with local regulations and size limits. Avoid taking more fish than you need and consider the impact of your catch on the overall ecosystem. Respect protected areas and seasons to allow fish populations to replenish. You can read more on Mossel Bay’s fishing seasons in our blog Why We Love Deep Sea Fishing in Mossel Bay.

Handling Sharks and Rays:

Sharks and rays are often misunderstood and vulnerable to overexploitation. When handling these creatures, prioritise their welfare and safety. Use specialised equipment like dehookers and gloves to minimise stress and injury to both the animal and yourself.

The Importance of Stingray Conservation

Blue stingray (Dasyatis chrysonota), a species of whiptail stingray, found in the coastal waters of southern Africa
Blue stingray (Dasyatis chrysonota), a species of whiptail stingray, found in the coastal waters of southern Africa

Stingrays are fascinating creatures that belong to a group of fish called elasmobranchs, which also includes sharks and skates. They have no bones in their body, only flexible cartilage, and they use a super set of senses to search for food in the water. There are about 220 known stingray species, ranging from the tiny short-nose electric ray to the giant manta ray.

Unfortunately, stingrays are also among the most threatened fish in the world, due to overfishing, habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. Many stingrays are caught as bycatch in fishing nets and trawls, or targeted for their meat, skin, or fins. Some stingrays are also accidentally killed or injured by anglers when they have been improperly handled or not safely released. 

Stingrays play vital roles in marine ecosystems and the ethical handling of them can help mitigate these risks and ensure their survival.

Bull ray caught in South Africa on a mat, ready to be tagged by researchers. Locally known as a duckbill ray.
Bull ray (Aetomylaeus bovinus), known locally as a duckbill ray due to the shape of its bill

Tips for Ethical Stingray Encounters

Minimise Handling Time:

Stingrays are sensitive creatures that can become stressed when handled improperly. Minimise handling time and avoid unnecessary contact, especially with delicate areas like their spiracles, gills and eyes.

DO NOT flip them:

Never turn a stingray on its back, as you may cause permanent internal damage.

Ethical handling was top priority when catching this Diamond to tag with an accelerometer to measure accelerometer, an instrument that measures the elasmobranch's movement.
Diamond ray (Gymnura natalensis) caught and tagged in Mossel Bay

Handling the stingray:

If you need to handle a stingray, e.g. to unhook it, make sure you use wet hands to avoid damaging their protective mucus layer. Support their body properly to prevent injury, and never lift them by their tail, as this can cause harm. Always be very cautious of the stinger on its tail, and if necessary, put a towel over the stinger.

Lifting the stingray:

Stingrays have plate-like teeth adapted for crushing prey. You can place your fingers or hand in its mouth to lift it, but make sure you lift its snout to remove your fingers to ensure you don’t damage your skin.

NEVER lift a stingray by its spiracles:

The spiracles are the ray’s breathing holes and are located just behind the eyes. It is very harmful to the ray to put your fingers in these holes, and even worse to lift them while holding them by the spiracles. A stingray can also potentially whip their tail far enough so that the stinger can reach you while holding them in this position, so lifting them by the spiracles could cause you injury.

Spiracles are a stingray’s breathing holes and are located just behind the eye as indicated on this image
Spiracles are a stingray’s breathing holes and are located just behind the eye

Landing net:

We suggest use of a landing net, from which you can unhook, and weigh the animal if necessary. The ray’s weight is supported by the net and you can more easily release it.

Release with Care:

Either by lifting it by hand with your fingers hooked in its mouth, or from a landing net, carefully slip the stingray back into the water, and ensure it swims away freely.

DO NOT ORI tag stingrays:

TAGGING OF RAYS IS PROHIBITED

Oceanic Research Institute (ORI) have removed rays from the Priority Tagging List. They have specified that anglers must not tag any ray species due to the high volume of poorly tagged rays.

Ethical handling of stingrays, sharks, fish, and other marine creatures is essential for the health of our oceans and the sustainability of recreational fishing. By adopting responsible angling practices and treating all species with respect and care, anglers can play a crucial role in preserving these valuable resources for our future generations.

Remember, every action we take on the water has an impact. Let’s strive to make that impact a positive one by prioritising ethical handling in our fishing pursuits.

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