Media angle

Gaza’s massive haul of devil rays sparks big fish story

Palestinian fishermen catch hundreds of the endangered species and lay them out on beach, prompting absurd online feeding frenzy

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Hundreds of devil rays lined up on the Gaza beach on February 27, 2013. (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Hundreds of devil rays lined up on the Gaza beach on February 27, 2013. (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Palestinian fishermen on Wednesday dragged hundreds of endangered rays out of the waters off the Gaza Strip, sparking an absurd international media sensation over where the fish came from.

Palestinian media reported that the cartilaginous fish had made a comeback in the waters off the Palestinian territory after years of absence, and that local fishermen had begun hauling them to the markets. A kilo of fresh ray sold for NIS 10 (less than $3) in the Gaza City fish market, the Ma’an news agency reported.

“For the first time in five years, fishermen say they are catching the rays by the hundreds,” Ma’an wrote.

Videos published on YouTube showed Gazan fishermen lugging the massive fish out of boats offshore, and butchering them on the beach with machetes before carting them off. The fishermen can be clearly seen in the video offloading the fish and lining them up in neat rows on the sand.

Once images of rows of dead rays lined up on the Gaza beach were photographed by the press, however, the story began to metamorphose — from a large and interesting catch at sea, to a purported mass death mystery.

Like sharks on the kill, the UK’s Daily Mail online picked up the story shortly after it was published, but rewrote it as the “Mystery of the massacred manta rays.”

Italy’s La Repubblica ran an AFP photo taken Wednesday morning of the rays lined up on the beach and also called it a mystery. “It is difficult to determine the cause, but the scenario that occurred on the beach was really disconcerting,” it wrote.

“Just why DID dozens of these bloodied sea creatures wash up on the beach in Gaza?” the Mail queried in its online headline, which it splashed for hours across the top of its site — one of the world’s most-read English news sites.

The paper initially erroneously identified the fish as manta rays, marine biologist Alistair Dove of the Georgia Aquarium soon noted on his website Deep Sea News. He identified the fish as devil rays rather than their larger cousins, the manta ray.

“You can tell because the mouth is under the head and not right on the front end,” he wrote.

Dove too, however, swallowed the “mystery” bait, rather than heeding the video evidence that the creatures had been caught at sea, and posited based on the photos of the creatures laid out on the Gaza beach that the devil rays could have been killed by “a toxic spill” or “an algal toxin” ingested along with their typical diet of phytoplankton.

“I have no evidence for this, but it seems the most likely explanation,” Dove wrote.

The Giant Devil Ray, indigenous to the Mediterranean Sea, is listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The reason Gaza fishermen said that the fish had not been seen in these numbers in several years may have been a result of overfishing in the Mediterranean and a subsequent ban on fishing that would further endanger the species.

The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean — to which Israel is a party, but the Palestinian Authority is not — issued a ban on trawling below 1,000 meters and driftnet fishing, likely significantly reducing bycatch fishing of devil rays.

In November, soon after Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel extended the Gaza fishing zone from three to six kilometers off-shore, a further possible factor in the “reappearance” of the devil rays in Gaza.

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