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By Marconi Calindas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Oct. 31) – A diving enthusiast and official of Marianas Dive is raising concern over the apparent decline in the number of eagle rays populating the waters around the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Marianas Dive president Mike Tripp said the number of eagle rays at famous dive spots on Saipan such as the Ice Cream and Eagle Ray City have decreased dramatically.

In an interview yesterday with Tripp, he said several diving groups have noticed that the eagle rays, a sub-family of stingrays, are now just a handful compared to previous years.

Tripp said that during his filming of a diving video for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands two years ago, he observed around 30 to 35 eagle rays swimming near the dive sites. Some Japanese divers, however, have told him that over five years ago the eagle rays' number was close to 100.

In his latest dive, Tripp said he only saw about six or seven.

He said several factors might have contributed to the decline in the sea creature's number. He said some divers have witnessed some eagle rays' carcasses being washed ashore with spears stuck to their bodies. Some divers also witnessed some boats circling the Eagle Ray City and Ice Cream dive sites.

Tripp said he is worried about the decline in the eagle ray population because in other islands such as the Grand Caymans, stingrays are one of the sources of income for the island's economy. At least US$9 million are being generated at Cayman Islands from the thousands of tourists visiting the island to dive and witness the stingrays swimming in the island's waters.

He said the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands has the same attraction and getting even just 10 percent of what the Cayman Islands earns would contribute a lot to the local economy. "If we lose them we lose one of the natural wonders we have here."

Tripp recently received a letter from a diving magazine, saying the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands has a rare diving site where divers could swim with eagle rays near the island's shores. The letter sender said the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands could use this advantage to attract more tourists.

Other causes in the decline of the eagle ray population remain a mystery to Tripp, who said there seems to be no cultural basis for it.

He said an Australian specialist informed him that the gestation period for eagle rays takes a long time, thus losing large numbers of the species would mean a longer recovery period to rejuvenate the eagle rays' population.

Right now, a bill that regulates the feeding of sharks and protection of eagle rays sits at the Legislature.

Tripp said his group is hoping that the bill would finally pass the Senate after being given back to the House for revisions. He said it's been two months now since the Senate unanimously voted to approve the bill.

"We need to educate people about it [the protection of the eagle rays]," Tripp said.

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