Transforming Indonesia’s manta fisheries

National Geographic
17 September 2014

Indonesia announced the creation of the world’s largest manta sanctuary in February 2014. It encompasses a massive 6 million square kilometers of ocean, affording full protection for Oceanic and Reef Manta Rays. This was a bold move, especially considering that Indonesia historically has been the world’s largest fisher of manta rays and sharks. But this new declaration raises an obvious question – how will Indonesia make such a regulation effective?

Indonesia, an archipelago of over 17,000 islands spanning thousands of miles of seas, is home to millions of coastal fishermen that depend heavily on fisheries to both feed their families and support their livelihoods. In recent years, manta rays have increasingly been exploited by targeted fisheries that prize them for their gills, which are sold in China, and also for their meat and skin that is consumed locally. With the new manta regulation prohibiting fishing or trade in mantas, the unfortunately reality is that Indonesia lacks both the resources and manpower to ensure strict compliance through enforcement mechanisms alone. It is simply too big an area with too many fishing communities scattered across it.

It is no surprise that since the creation of the sanctuary, images of manta poaching in Indonesia are now being shared in social media and press, with strong commentary demanding better enforcement. And though these images do serve a purpose in highlighting that laws are being broken, they often do little to address the underlying issues. The establishment of fisheries laws with enforcement mechanisms will only be effective when coupled with programs that address the livelihood needs of the affected communities. These often poor and less educated fishermen have few options when it comes to providing for their families. They either fish or go hungry; it’s that simple.

Fortunately the communities that historically fish manta rays in Indonesia are uniquely positioned to benefit from another option. A peer-reviewed study led by WildAid, The Manta Trust and Shark Savers estimated that global manta ecotourism generates USD$140 million in annual revenues – USD$15 million per year in Indonesia alone – making the species highly valuable for many Indonesian communities who now rely on ecotourism for their livelihoods. Unfortunately, these same populations of manta rays are threatened by targeted fisheries which only generate USD$400,000 annually in comparison. But the transition from fishermen to tour guide is not necessarily a simple one.

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