Newport Aquarium: All 7 newborn shark ray pups die

NEWPORT, Ky. – All seven of the historic shark ray pups born at Newport Aquarium have died.

That news was confirmed Wednesday morning by aquarium officials, who said the last of the seven pups born at the Newport venue passed away Monday night.

“We are mourning the passing of the shark ray pups,” said Chris Pierson, director of husbandry operations for Newport Aquarium.

“Our husbandry staff has poured its collective hearts into caring for these animals, working around the clock to give them every opportunity to develop. Since this is the first time shark rays have bred in captivity, we were in uncharted territory. The knowledge and experience that we’ve gained has been vast and will hopefully assist us in the future.”

The birth of the pups on Jan. 24 a historical happening, as it marked the first confirmed successful breeding of two shark rays in captivity.

The pups’ mother, Sweet Pea, was the first shark ray to go on display in the Western Hemisphere in 2005.

She returned to the Surrounded by Sharks exhibit Tuesday afternoon. Wednesday marks her first full day back from maternity care at an off-site facility in Newport.

On Wednesday morning, Cincinnati Councilmember Chris Seelbach presented Newport Aquarium with a mayoral proclamation that honored the pup's mother by declaring Jan. 24, 2014 as “Sweet Pea Day” in the city.

When the pregnancy was announced on Jan. 19, Newport Aquarium biologists tried to temper expectations due to the unchartered territory of shark ray reproduction.

“As excited as we are, there’s still a lot of work to do. There are many challenges and unknowns to overcome,” Scott Brehob said at the time. Brehob and Jen Hazeres are the two biologists that take care of the shark rays on a daily basis.

Very little is known about this rare species that receives its name because their wide head area resembles a ray, while the rest of their body resembles a shark. 

The World Conservation Union lists the tropical fish as vulnerable to extinction on its Red List of Threatened Animals due to threats such as habitat destruction, pollution, overfishing and the use of their fins for products including shark fin soup. Shark rays live primarily in the Indo-Pacific region, near the coast and offshore reefs in tropical water.

But in addition to being rare, they're notoriously difficult to breed.

Newport Aquarium has been working to change that since February 2007 when they created the Shark Ray Breeding Program (SRBP). The program began with the introduction of an extremely rare male shark ray named Scooter.

When Sweet Pea arrived at Newport Aquarium in June 2005 there were only five institutions in the world with shark rays. Today that number has increased to 25 institutions but marine biologists believe there's still a long way to go.

Although the problem helps aquariums and zoos from around the world with their own animals, the goal of the biologists at Newport Aquarium is to further the collective understanding of the species.

Despite the setback caused by the deaths of the pups, Newport Aquarium animal health specialist Jolene Hannah hopes the SRB program will help change those numbers.

“The goals of the program go beyond breeding them. We’re striving to learn as much as we can about shark rays,” said Hannah, who has been studying hormones in the prehistoric looking creatures since the program’s inception.

In addition to mourning the loss of the pups, the proclamation delivered by Seelbach and inked with Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley’s signature recognized Newport Aquarium for being “a pioneer and international leader in the care and exhibition of shark rays in captivity, being the first, and one of the largest and rarest exhibits of shark rays in the world.”

Seelbach delivered the official City of Cincinnati document to Newport Aquarium Vice President and Executive Director Eric Rose at the Shark Ray Bay Theater.

“Newport Aquarium is flattered to be recognized by our regional friends,” Rose said.

For more information on Sweet Pea and the Shark Ray Breeding Program, visit NewportAquarium.com or call 1-800-406-FISH (3474).

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