5 December 2007

Not every student sells sell off most of their possessions to finance an unpredictable research project on the other side of the world.

But Andrea Marshall is not a normal student.

The 28-year-old Californian has spent the last five years researching manta rays — the world’s largest rays for her UQ PhD.

Ms Marshall is now regarded as one of the world’s leading manta ray experts after conducting the first detailed study of manta rays and building her own shark and ray research centre from scratch in Mozambique, Africa.

She initially moved to Australia from the United States because of UQ’s academic flexibility and creativity.

“At UQ I saw that they were more willing to take a chance on creative or groundbreaking projects. In America you just do what your supervisor tells you to that’s the end,” Ms Marshall said.

She had been volunteering for research into Great White sharks in South Africa, when her life took a sudden turn.

Her interest in manta rays was tweaked when local divers recommended she explore a coastal spot known for its abundance of rays.

After seeing the research potential, Ms Marshall quickly abandoned her life in Brisbane, which included a comfortable riverfront apartment, to live on the remote east coast of Mozambique.

It took a lot longer to convince her UQ supervisor that it was safe to work in Africa as the remote and male-dominated world of Mozambique was confronting for a young, single American woman.

Ms Marshall arrived in Mozambique in 2003 and lived on the outskirts of Inhambane, which lacked bare essentials such as electricity and running water.

“I had never lived in a place where you had to pump and heat your own water,” she said.

“It was hard to get used to at first. It really makes you stop an appreciate all of the details you take for granted.”

With her truck permanently locked in 4X4, she said she learned most things from scratch.

“The place I was living at was ridiculously remote and that’s what made me a bit nervous.

“I had to learn how to drive in the sand, how to tow and launch my own boat.

“I had to learn how to fix my truck when it broke down in the middle of nowhere. It was a steep learning curve.”

But to do her research she needed a more permanent base, so, without any building experience, Ms Marshall built two homes in Mozambique using her own money and own two hands.

The first, a double-story house of local clay brick and reeds, took her $15,000 and a year of hard work to build on leased land.

But this house was abandoned when she clashed with her landholder who she said was more interested in making money from rays than in conserving them.

“It was heartbreaking. I almost quit that day because I couldn’t bare the thought of having to do it again.”

Not prepared to give up, she went on to build another home and research space with more conservation-minded locals an hour north in the backpacker haven of Tofo Beach.

This is the base of the current Manta and Whale Shark Research Centre which consists of several huts, a laboratory and research facilities with a growing bank of scientific equipment.

The research base, developed with fellow UQ researcher and whale shark expert Simon Pierce, has its own 6.5 metre research boat, a dissection area and lecture room. They even have their own website.

Scientists give weekly public talks to spread the conservation message and advise the provincial government about local marine resources and their exploitation.

Biologists currently consider there to be only one manta ray species, but Ms Marshall has evidence that there are least two and possibly even a third sub category.

One species is smaller and lives in local waters while the other manta is bigger and migratory, preferring deeper and colder waters.

“That’s a big deal because the world thinks there’s one and so all conservation measures are being addressed to just one,” she said.

“They lead completely different lifestyles and need completely different protection.”

So far, Ms Marshall has identified more than 511 different manta rays, making it the largest scientifically documented population in the world.

She has also conducted the first field-study on their reproductive ecology.

“Before I began we didn’t really know at what size they reached maturity, how long their pregnancies lasted for, or how often they reproduced.

“These seem like obvious things to know about the world’s largest ray but somehow they were unknown.”

As a professional underwater photographer, Ms Marshall used non-invasive photographic techniques to identify individuals by the unique patterns on the manta ray stomachs.

“I believe the most responsible research is often observational and non-intrusive. I have always tried to have the least impact while still extracting valuable quantifiable data.”

Her research has found that manta rays only have one pup every two to three years compared to other shark species such as the whale shark, which can have more than 300 young.

She said manta rays were vulnerable to exploitation because of their poor reproduction, they were easy to catch and were also being targeted in their own habitats.

“This is not a species that can withstand the influence of man. They are extremely vulnerable.”

She said manta and devil rays were fished in Africa and a lot more heavily in south east Asia..

“They are killing hundreds and hundreds of them a year throughout these regions.”

“It is a tragedy to see not just because they’re lovely animals but as a scientist, alarm bells are going off about just how radically unsustainable these practices are.

“It boggles my mind how much damage we can inflict to local populations in such short spaces of time. This is a species that has been around for millions of years and we are seeing massive declines in certain areas.”

Using her research, manta rays were last year classified as near-threatened to vulnerable on the world’s definitive conservation list.

Having worked in some of the fish markets in Indonesia, Ms Marshall is worried about the future of African manta rays.

“It’s pretty distressing when you see foreign longliners showing up off the African coastline because they’ve fished out the South Pacific and Asia.

“My heart goes out to Africa. With little to no regulation, these coastlines are sure to be hard hit in the coming decades. We are already seeing the impacts now.”

She said one of the main goals of her research centre was to educate people about these majestic animals so they could serve as a flagship species for marine conservation in Africa.

Living in Mozambique has certainly been a rocky road for Ms Marshall.

She has had research money stolen twice from a safe, fallen ill from parasites and infections and watched cyclones ravage her coastal home.

But she said even though Mozambique was wild and harsh it was one of the most beautiful places on earth.

“It’s such a joy to work in Africa because you have this feeling of accomplishment after each and every day.
Your successes feel like triumphs.”

Ms Marshall wants to expand her Centre’s international research and plans to conduct comparative studies around the world.

She said she was most proud of having a vision and hanging in there when it seemed impossible.

“I spent my entire life savings on this project which is probably unheard of for a PhD student. It might have blown up in my face but I had to give it a go.

“The beauty of having a dream that works out in the end is just that, it works out.”

Her PhD advisor, Associate Professor Mike Bennett said that Ms Marshall persevered with her dream and her science had been rewarded with results that had redefined the species.

For more information about Ms Marshall’s research and volunteer program, visit: www.giantfish.org

MEDIA: Miguel Holland at UQ Communications (m.holland@uq.edu.au, 3365 2619)