A species’ habitat is its home; it depends upon it for shelter and searches within it for food and the opportunity to mate. Therefore, to effectively ensure the long-term survival of a species in the wild, you must also ensure the protection of its habitat, especially those areas within its habitat which are of critical importance to its survival; such as mating, feeding or birthing grounds. Protecting habitats to safeguard a specific species also helps to ensure the protection of all the other species within that habitat which also depend upon it for survival.
However, life on Earth is usually not so easily and discretely defined or protected, with varying scales of interconnectivity for each species occurring between habitats over space and time. For large migratory species like manta rays, which often range across both natural and human borders, this is especially true, making complete protection for this species extremely difficult without in-depth knowledge into the lives of these enigmatic creatures.
Identifying the areas which are most important for the protection of a species is just the first step on the road to successful and effective protection, the next step of designating these areas for protection is often an even more difficult process met with conflict and political frustrations. Once protective legislation exists on paper, the task of enforcing and effecting the sustainable management of these regulations is essential to gain real conservation benefits. Around the world there are several marine protected areas (MPAs) which serve to protect mantas. Some of these have come into being based on the presence of mantas, while others offer mantas a refuge through their existence…
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)
The IUCN defines an MPA as “any area of the intertidal or sub-tidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment”.
Unfortunately global marine resources are still viewed almost entirely as open markets for anyone to utilize and benefit from; as of 2010 only just over 1% of the world’s oceans were protected, and most of these protected areas incredulously still allow fishing to some degree within their boundaries. Top fisheries management scientists suggest that if we are to truly preserve our oceans, and ensure sustainable fisheries for the future population of the earth, one of the key changes to the way we manage our oceans must be the creation of many more such protected areas. They recommend that approximately 30% of our oceans key marine habitats must be set aside from fishing and other destructive pressures, with effective enforcement of the protective legislation also essential for success.
Of course, recommendations like these are usually met by opposition from fishing communities, which claim this will reduce the amount of fish that they will be able to catch. However, research has repeatedly shown that actually quite the opposite occurs, with large spill-over catches occurring in the surrounding waters outside the MPA, increasing the total catches for the fishermen, while still preserving the core protected areas and species populations within the MPA.
The Revillagigedo Islands are a group of four volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, known for their unique ecosystem. These remote islands lie over 600 km from the west coast of Mexico and were designated as a reserve by the Mexican government in 1994. Each year oceanic manta rays can be seen with regularity in the waters of these islands from November to June. The Reserve has a 12 mile no fishing zone surrounding each island, however eye witness accounts report that illegal fishing, particularly gill netting, still occurs in the waters of the reserve on a regular basis.
The Komodo National Park is an excellent example of a protected area which has afforded manta rays protection as a result of its existence. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, the park was set up initially as a terrestrial park in 1980. Since its inception however, its remit has expanded to protect not only terrestrial biodiversity but also marine. A total of 67% of the protected area is now marine, giving refuge not only to manta rays but all the other animals which inhabit this rich coral reef ecosystems. Unfortunately reports from the field still suggests illegal fishing still continues in this MPA and appears to be increasing in recent years as the park faces management difficulties.
Republic of Maldives
The Republic of Maldives boasts a total of 32 MPAs within its waters; the two most recently designated of these (announced in June 2009) being specifically chosen because of their importance as key sites of habitat use for manta rays and whale sharks. Unfortunately, prior to these 2009 designations regulatory measures set in place on paper to protect these MPAs were poorly enforced. However, the MPAs designated in 2009 are heralding a new era for the management of MPAs in this country, with site specific management plans and onsite enforcement now in place at several sites, which will hopefully be expanded to the remaining MPAs in the near future.
The most famous of the MPAs for manta rays in the Maldives is Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll. This site is a key feeding area for reef mantas during the Maldives S-W Monsoon and despite its small size (around the size of a football pitch) it has gained world recognition for its capacity to attract over 250 mantas (not to mention several whale sharks) into its sandy shallows during peak feeding events.
Protecting and managing such a site helps alleviate unsustainable tourism pressure on the mantas, provides revenue for the ongoing management of the MPA, as well as creating employment opportunities for local communities. The designation of Hanifaru Bay MPA has brought together local communities, stakeholders, conservation organisations, scientists and the government to ensure this area thrives under the new designation, giving real meaning to its protective status.
Most recently, in July 2011, the whole of Baa Atoll was designated as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve with Hanifaru Bay declared a core protected area within this reserve. The key aims of a Biosphere Reserve include biodiversity conservation, outreach and education and livelihoods and sustainability. Protecting mantas in an area such as Hanifaru, safeguarding the revenue they generate for the future benefit of all, allows for the achievement of all of these aims, ensuring the mantas continued protection in Hanifaru, Baa Atoll and the Maldives.
In the small island state of Yap in Micronesia the resident population of reef manta rays are very important for the local tourism industry. As a result all manta and mobula ray species are heavily protected, with anyone found harming these animals facing a six month prison sentence and a one thousand US dollar fine. Furthermore, a MPA for manta rays has also been created in Yap. This sanctuary, which covers 8,234 square miles, taking in 16 islands and 145 islets and atolls, out to 12 miles offshore, further protects the Reef Manta Ray and their habitat.
The Role of the Manta Trust
Organisations like the Manta Trust and its partners in various countries play a key role in gaining protective measures for manta rays and their habitats, as well as informing ongoing management. The work of the Maldivian Manta Ray Project for example, was critical in the designation of Hanifaru Bay as a MPA, a site which was earmarked for development before the protective legislation was enacted. By collecting long term data on the Maldivian manta ray population the project was able to show key decision makers just how important the site is for manta rays in this country; both ecologically and economically.
This scientific data coupled with spectacular images of the feeding manta rays at Hanifaru were used to capture the general public’s attention, gaining their support. This increased awareness, both nationally and internationally, translated into increased tourism demand, which together with scientific evidence was used to build a strong case for the protection of this unique site. Maintaining data collection and site use monitoring after designation is just as important as the initial success of achieving protection. Unless effective measures are put in place to ensure the ongoing management and enforcement of sites like Hanifaru, then these MPAs will remain nothing more than paper parks.
In a world which is driven by economics, it is simply not effective to say to governments, or local communities, that you should protect a species, or its habitat, simply for its intrinsic or scientific value alone. Unfortunately we live in a world where the majority of people just do not have that luxury of choice to care, or the education to overcome the ignorance which leads to a lack of empathy. The reality is that nature must pay for itself in a tangible and direct way. Those entrusted with its protection should not only be obliged by law to protect, they must also have the will and the desire to do so. The Manta Trust is striving to ensure that Hanifaru and all the other important manta aggregation sites throughout the world become places where manta rays, tourism and the local communities can and should, all profit from the benefits protective status can give. In such places the road to sustainable management is a real and effective path upon which the conservation of our oceans and its resources can travel for the future benefit of all, forever.