This Shark Week, take a moment to consider the manta ray. This much-loved gentle giant of the shark and ray (elasmobranch) family is a large, slow-growing and long-lived species, which makes it particularly vulnerable to overfishing.
Unfortunately, fishers have increasingly targeted mantas in recent decades to meet emerging demand for their gills in traditional Chinese medicine markets. This growth in demand is primarily the result of industry marketing, with the gills being peddled by practitioners as a cure for coughs and chicken pox, and for promoting respiratory health.
Indonesia is a global priority for manta ray conservation, as it’s the world’s largest elasmobranch fishing nation and a major supplier of manta ray gills to the world’s largest consumer markets. Indonesia is also home to what is thought to be—or at least was—the world’s largest targeted manta ray fishery: Lamakera.
Lamakera is a small coastal community in Eastern Indonesia made (in)famous by the 2015 Emmy-award nominated film documentary “Racing Extinction.” People in Lamakera have been hunting marine megafauna for centuries, but traditionally the catch was just for local consumption. However, in the early 2000s manta ray catch in Lamakera rocketed, transforming in to a commercialized industry.
Around 2002, annual landings were as high as 1,000 individuals—a huge mortality rate for such a large, slow-growing species. Catch has declined ever since despite increases in fishing effort: a sure sign of an overexploited population.
Through a collaboration led by Reef Check Indonesia and Manta Trust, a manta conservation project was launched in Lamakera in 2013. This coalition led an intensive scoping and community consultation phase, laying critical foundations for future work by WCS Indonesia and Misool Foundation.
In 2014, the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries declared manta rays a protected species. This was a huge success for elasmobranch conservation (one that provided a clear legal framework for protecting mantas) but a major challenge for implementation—particularly because manta ray fishing is an important part of the livelihoods and culture of coastal communities like Lamakera.
To address this complex problem, WCS Indonesia and Misool Foundation adopted a multi-faceted approach. We focused on improving enforcement of manta ray regulations while developing incentives for regulation compliance and adoption of sustainable marine management practices—a classic carrot and stick approach. Since then, we’ve been monitoring our data to assess our impact.
What have we achieved so far? Since 2014, WCS has conducted law enforcement trainings on detecting, deterring, and prosecuting marine wildlife crimes, while supporting collection of data on illegal trade and providing legal advice to enforcement officials. More than 20 suspects involved in illegal manta ray trade have been arrested since 2014, with an estimated 4,200 kg of manta ray products seized.
These have resulted in sizeable fines and jail time in the first-ever prosecutions related to protecting fish species in Indonesia. We found there has been a significant increase in average fines and prosecutions for illegal shark and ray traders following WCS trainings for government officials, which we believe is an indicator of improved awareness, motivation, and capacity to prosecute marine wildlife crimes.
Marine patrols were launched in 2016, and increased significantly in 2017, with the timing and location of patrol efforts strategically concentrated in areas and times of highest likelihood of hunting incidents.
On the community level, our partners at Misool Foundation established a sustainable fisheries cooperative. Of 63 members, twenty-two are ex-manta ray fishers committed to cease targeting mantas by participating in the cooperative. The benefits from participation are tied to compliance with manta ray protection regulations. An additional 13 local female manta ray traders have committed to developing non-manta ray livelihoods, and have received small business loans to do so.
Community monitoring of illegal fishing and by-catch incidents has significantly increased. Over the past year we’ve received 33 reports of illegal fishing and accidental by-catch of protected marine fauna, resulting in the apprehension of five illegal fishing vessels and release of 18 protected animals. Awareness of regulations has clearly improved along with local pride in marine megafauna.
Most importantly, we are already seeing a measurable impact on manta ray mortality—with a statistically significant decrease in manta ray mortality in 2016/17 we can connect to our dual ‘carrot and stick’ strategy.
Through concerted efforts across different levels of society, WCS and Misool Foundation are achieving a measurable impact on saving manta rays in Indonesia. Behaviour change required for effective conservation can be complicated. Encouraging people to reduce environmentally destructive habits (especially if they have limited options) requires a variety of approaches. Some people will respond well to carrots, and others to sticks.
Despite these successes, pressures, challenges and uncertainties remain. Demand continues to drive hunting of manta rays. The population is severely depleted and recent enforcement measures may have resulted in illegal activity moving to less well-monitored locations. Our successes so far are just the first steps towards achieving long-term meaningful change and holistic sustainable management of marine resources.
Achieving success in the long-term is possible only with flexible, understanding donors and diverse and resilient partners. The financial support of the Shark Conservation Fund and The Paul G Allen Family Foundation/Vulcan has been critical, just as we have relied on the skill and commitment of Misool Foundation, the East Flores fisheries authority, and the water police.
Establishing and maintaining change takes time (especially when there are strong a persistent drivers for illegal targeting and trade), but based on our success so far we feel confident that time is on our side in protecting these extraordinary species.
This article was originally published on National Geographic.