Indonesian fishermen have hunted manta rays for centuries. Setting sail in fragile dugout canoes, they scour coastal waters for the tell tale signs of a manta aggregation. A small harpoon, physical strength, and luck are their only weapons. The manta ray occupies a central place in the culture and traditions of these intrepid fishermen—a successful manta hunt is an important rite of passage into manhood.
But times are changing. No longer an occasional windfall, manta rays have become big business. As overfishing causes shark populations to decline, manta wingtips provide a cheap substitute for shark fin soup. Meanwhile in China, one kilogram of dried manta gill retails for US$200 or more. Consumption of these dried and powdered gills is believed to purify the blood, curing diseases ranging from the common cold, to diabetes, to cancer. But there's no medical evidence that these cures work.
With increasing profits at stake, Indonesia's traditional manta fishermen are in demand. Where once they had to struggle to feed their families, now businessmen are providing motorboats, nets, and a salary - strong incentives for these poor communities.
At first, it's easy pickings. Mantas are surprisingly easy to catch. They aggregate in large numbers in shallow water, often returning to the same location for months or even years. With their immense size, they are easily seen and targeted from the surface. Armed with new motorboats, strong nets, and generations of experience, the fishermen know exactly where to go. But this is no longer traditional subsistence fishing.
Commercial fishing techniques rapidly take their toll. Fishermen from the small village of Lamakera in eastern Indonesia once landed around 200 mantas every year. In their dugout canoes, each fishing trip could last up to two weeks. Today, with modern motorboats and fishing gear, they can make the same trip in a day, and the catch has grown to almost 3,000 mantas per year!
But these easy pickings are quickly exhausted, forcing fishermen to travel further and further afield to maintain their catch. Neighbouring villages report that mantas have disappeared entirely from their waters. At the same time, rich traditions and cultures centered on the manta ray are being lost. Unable to complete the first hunt that symbolizes the transition to manhood, some adolescent boys may be unable to marry. With much of the local community now depending directly or indirectly on the manta fishery, it is unclear how they will adapt if the industry packs up and moves to richer grounds.
Some may say that the fishermen know the risks. After all, they have been a intricate part of the delicate balance of nature for centuries. But in these waters of the Coral Triangle—the most productive and diverse on earth—many have never before had the tools to overexploit the ocean. For those that do pay heed to the warning signs, the need to feed their family remains a strong incentive when the average local income is below US$1 per day.
Lamakera is not unique. Throughout Indonesia's 18,000 islands, this story unfolds in villages time and again. This new and lucrative trade in wildlife products is not only harvesting a vital link from the ecosystem, but also eroding traditions and undermining the sustainable future of fisheries, tourism and other marine industries. With such far reaching impacts on both society and the economy, you may expect that the government is paying close attention.
Indonesia is the world's largest exporter of sharks and rays, accounting for almost 15% of world trade. But this figure is based on reported landings and exports. Many of Indonesia's shark and ray fisheries are unregulated and unreported. What does this mean? No catch quotas. No minimum sizes. No closed seasons. No regulation or management to ensure that sharks and rays—fish that mature slowly, are long-lived, and have few young—will continue to support the ecosystems, industries and jobs that depend on them.
In 2000, countries around the world adopted the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks under the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. These countries pledged to implement their own national shark and ray management plans. Indonesia is among several countries that has yet to achieve this goal. With current levels of harvesting, time is running out. The fate of manta rays, fishing communities, the tourism industry and others hangs in the balance.
MantaWatch is raising awareness about the plight of manta rays, and developing the tools to find a solution. A lack of information is the biggest challenge facing conservation and management approaches. Scientists simply don't know enough about manta rays, their movements, behaviors and reproduction. As recently as 2008 a new species of manta ray was discovered—the largest new species to be described for over 50 years!
Divers and snorkelers play a vital role in MantaWatch's efforts to improve our understanding of manta rays. By taking photos of the unique patterns of markings on the underside of a manta, and uploading them to the MantaWatch database, they are helping to identify individuals, track migrations, and assess population status.
But scientific data is only part of the solution. Committed and focused action by governments is also crucial. MantaWatch uses the photos and reports submitted by divers around the world to create management tools, and supports the development of management and conservation plans by national governments.
MantaWatch's petition to Save Manta Rays in Indonesia aims to bring manta ray conservation onto the environmental agenda in Indonesia. With a target of 1,000 signatures, MantaWatch hopes to refocus attention on the National Plan of Action for sharks and rays. Pledge your support for better management of manta ray fisheries by signing the petition to Save Manta Rays in Indonesia