Indonesia Announces World’s Largest Sanctuary for Manta Rays

In this Oct. 18, 2011 photo, a manta ray swims  off Raja Ampat islands, Indonesia
In this Oct. 18, 2011 photo, a manta ray swims off Raja Ampat islands, Indonesia. Photograph by Herman Harsoyo, AP

One of the world’s largest fishes gets a super-size sanctuary thanks to a decision by the Indonesian government to ban fishing for manta rays within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The move, hailed by conservation organizations and researchers, has resulted in the world’s largest protected area for these migratory animals. Indonesia’s EEZ stretches for almost 2.3 million square miles (6 million square kilometers). (Watch a video to learn more about manta rays.)

Two manta ray species, the reef manta (Manta alfredi) and the oceanic manta (Manta birostris), occur in the waters around Indonesia, and both are afforded protection under this new legislation.

“This decision was a crucial victory for manta ray conservation,” writes Andrea Marshall, director of the Marine Megafauna Foundation and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, in an email.

Marshall explains that Indonesia has some of the largest manta ray fisheries in the world, which feed the traditional medicine trade. “This single legislative act will help to curb declines in both species of manta in Indonesia and throughout Southeast Asia,” she explains.

The decision to protect manta rays was influenced in part by a 2013 study in the journal PLoS ONE looking at the economic effects of manta ray tourism versus manta fisheries.

Indonesia map
Credit: NG Staff

The study authors found that the value of a single live manta ray in Yap (map) in the south Pacific—an area with arguably the longest established tourism industry for manta ray watching—was roughly $2 million over the animal’s lifetime. The price of a manta ray in fish markets in Sri Lanka and Indonesia ranged from $40 to $200.

“As the world’s largest archipelagic nation, it is important for Indonesia to maximize economic returns from our marine resources,” said Sharif Sutardjo, Indonesia’s minister of marine affairs and fisheries, in a statement.

Placing a monetary value on animals and ecosystem services is not a new concept in the conservation world. And it can certainly be a convincing argument for protecting a species, says Marshall. (See “7 Species of Sharks and Manta Rays Receive International Protection.”)

“But economic benefits aside, it is vital for us to remember the larger significance of these animals,” she says. “The world would be a far lesser place without iconic marine giants like mantas, which should be protected as part of our ocean’s natural heritage.”

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

Jane J. Lee is a news writer and editor at National Geographic.

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