A record 115 stingrays were counted in the biannual population survey at the Sandbar.
The count continues an encouraging recent trend that has seen numbers steadily rising at the popular tourist attraction. The census had dipped to 57 in 2012 but is now more than double that figure, according to Jessica Harvey of the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation.
Harvey said, “It is very encouraging to see so many rays, especially from a tourism perspective.”
She said the reasons for the population surge were not clear. The foundation uses a team of volunteers to count the rays at the Sandbar twice every year.
Researchers catch the rays by hand, swim them into a salmon net and lift them on board where they are transferred to a paddling pool, while the team takes the vital measurements and checks for tags.
One concern flagged this year was that several rays appeared to have injuries associated with fishing.
“There were two that had hooks in their mouths and a couple of others had injuries that we believe are caused by hooks.”
She said it was possible that the rays were accidentally hooked and cut free by North Sound fishermen, and urged anglers to take care not to hook the rays, particularly at night.
Another ray had a wound that was suspected to be a result of a spearfishing incident. Harvey said she was still seeking to confirm if that was the case.
Any type of fishing for rays is illegal under the National Conservation Law.
The rays face other threats, though, which cannot be controlled. One had injuries from a shark bite.
“It had healed quite well,” said Harvey. “They are pretty resilient.”
The research team also includes a vet, who performs an ultrasound on each of the female rays.
During the census, which took place from Friday to Sunday, they found more than 50% of the females of reproductive age were pregnant.
The foundation and the Department of Environment have previously highlighted concerns about the handling of rays by tour operators at the Sandbar. New rules, proposed through the National Conservation Council, seek to make it possible for guides who break the handling guidelines to have their licenses revoked.
Harvey said the foundation had met with tour guide operators and produced a video demonstration of how to safely handle the resident rays without harming them. She believes standards are improving.