Indonesia builds manta ray tourism
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia is now the world's largest sanctuary for manta rays, after officials were convinced by evidence that the gentle giants known for delighting tourists are worth more alive than dead.
The government on Friday announced that manta rays within the archipelago's 2.2 million square miles of ocean will be protected from fishing and export. It will take time and cooperation at multiple levels to enforce the ban on poaching in the biggest global shark and ray fishery.
Conservationists point to simple economics as an incentive. According to a study published last year in the online journal PLoS One, a manta ray is worth up to $1 million over the course of its long lifetime, thanks to tourists willing to pay generously for a chance to swim with the curious creatures that glide gracefully through the water by flapping their wide wings, almost as if flying.
They are worth only $40 to $500 dead.
Government officials were “so surprised that the tourism value is very high. That's a very powerful argument,” said Tiene Gunawan, marine program director at Conservation International Indonesia. “Indonesia is such a big, big, big country. When looking at the size of the water, it's huge. And I think we should start small and make some kind of pilot for this enforcement.”
The regulation was passed Jan. 27. Conservation groups are working to teach fishermen about the value of keeping the mantas alive, while business people, the military, water police and local officials are being engaged to assist.
“There are more than 200 special policemen who have been prepared to guard conservation areas and to enforce the law on protection of this species,” Sudirman Saad, director general for marine, coastal and small islands, said at a news conference announcing the protections on Friday. He said the government will encourage fishermen affected by the ban to take advantage of manta ray tourism.
In some areas, including a well-known spot near the resort island of Bali, locals are making profits from taking snorkelers out on their fishing boats, or working at larger dive resorts where mantas are a top attraction.
In Indonesia alone, manta tourism brings in an estimated $15 million each year, according to the PLoS One report.
Mantas are among the world's largest fish and can reach up to 26 feet from wingtip to wingtip. Found in the tropics, they can live for as long as 50 years, but do not mature until ages 8 to 10 and typically give birth to a single pup only every two to five years.
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