Manta ray fisheries are doubling every year in Indonesia, driven by the expanding Asian market for wildlife medicines and shark fins. With some small villages harvesting as many as 3,000 mantas per year, this rapid growth brings both environmental and social impacts. MantaWatch is urging the Indonesian government to take action through their petition to Save Manta Rays in Indonesia, .
Indonesian fisherman have hunted manta rays for centuries. In small wooden canoes they paddle across the ocean, searching for remote places where the mantas congregate. A small harpoon, physical strength, and luck are their only weapons. Understandably, the manta holds a central place in the cultures and traditions of these communities. In some villages, adolescent boys are not considered men until they have successfully returned from a manta hunt. But these fishermen's lives are changing. No longer a rite of passage or an occasional bountiful catch, manta rays have become big business.
As shark populations decline, manta wingtips are increasingly being used as a cheap filler in sharks fin soup. While in China, one kilogram of dried manta gill sells for US$ 200 or more. The gills are believed to purify the blood, and are consumed to cure anything from the common cold, to diabetes, to cancer. There is no medical evidence that it works. With profits at stake, traditional manta fishermen are finding themselves suddenly in demand. Foreign businessmen are providing the motor boats and nets, as well as paying a wage. For these fishermen, a failed catch used to mean that their family went hungry, and this new opportunity is a strong incentive. At first, it's easy pickings. Mantas are surprisingly easy to catch. They aggregate in large numbers in shallow water, often coming back to the same location time and again. What's more, with their immense size, they are easily seen and targeted from the surface. With their motorboats, strong nets, and long traditions, the fishermen know exactly where to go. But this is no longer traditional subsistence fishing. These commercial techniques rapidly take their toll.
Traditional fishermen from the small village of Lamakera in Indonesia used to land about 200 mantas per year. In their traditional boats each fishing trip could last up to two weeks. With their new motorboats and fishing gears they can make the same trip in one day, and the catch has grown to almost 3,000 mantas per year! But the easy pickings dry up quickly, have forced fishermen to travel further and further afield to maintain their catch. Many nearby villages are finding no mantas at all in their waters. Traditions and cultures centred around the manta ray are suffering, and may prevent a generation of young men from taking a wife. Much of the local community now depends directly or indirectly on the manta industry for their livelihoods. If the businessmen pack up and move on to richer grounds, it's unclear how the community will adapt. Some will say that the fishermen know the risks? They are, after all, an intimate part of the delicate balance of nature. But in these waters of the Coral Triangle—the most productive on earth—many have never had the tools to over exploit the ocean, and the bounty is believed to be a gift from the gods.
For those that did notice the warning signs, the need to feed their family remains a strong incentive when local wages are often below US$ 1 per day. Lamakera is not alone. Across Indonesia's 18,000 islands, the same story is repeated in many villages. This new trade is not only harvesting a vital link from the ecosystem, but also eroding traditions, and affecting the sustainability of both fisheries and tourism. With such far reaching impacts on 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, and accounts for almost 15% of world trade. But this figure is based only on reported landings and exports. Most 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 regulations to ensure that sharks and rays—creatures that mature late, live long, and have few young—will continue to support the industries and jobs that depend on them. In 2000 under the FAO, countries around the world adopted the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks, with each member agreeing to implement its own national shark and ray management plans. Indonesia is one of the countries that has not yet achieved this goal. With current levels of harvesting, time is running out. The fate of manta rays, fishing communities, the diving industry and many others hangs in the balance. MantaWatch was established to raise awareness about the plight of manta rays, and to develop the tools to do something about it. Divers and snorkelers are playing an important role, helping to monitor and assess manta populations by taking photos of their unique patterns of markings and uploading them to our database. But scientific data is only part of the solution. Committed and focused government action is also critical. Our petition to Save Manta Rays in Indonesia aims to bring manta ray conservation to the forefront of environmental agenda in Indonesia, while demonstrating the widespread support for this cause. Our target is to present 1,000 signatures to Indonesia's Minster for the Environment, and urge him to take the first step. If you think that unregulated commercial harvesting of manta rays should stop, show your support by signing the petition today, and help Save Manta Rays in Indonesia.