As people’s perceptions of animals have changed in recent times, so too has the way in which we value them. Economically, many nations are realizing that the incentives to fish a species like manta rays for the short term profits of a few individuals, pales in comparison to the jobs which can be created, and the revenue generated, by a sustainable tourism industry driven by these charismatic mega fauna.
Tourism however is not without its pitfalls and without appropriate management can also have harmful effects on manta rays and their habitat…
An Economic Alternative
In Australia, Mozambique, Mexico, Hawaii, Palau, Yap, the Philippines and the Maldives manta rays are now an important part of the regional and national tourism industry, driving multi-million dollar revenue streams. The manta ray tourism at Coral Bay in Western Australia generates millions of Australian dollars for the local community each year, while the night feeding manta rays at Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island generate over US$2.5 million annually for the local economy through the dive and snorkel activities there.
A specific scientific study conducted in the Maldives estimated that in 2008 the resident manta ray population generated a massive US$8.1 million directly from dedicated manta ray dive and snorkel activities in this tiny island nation. This huge revenue stream, generated specifically by these animals each year, means that each and every individual manta ray in the Maldives is, on average, worth thousands of US dollars alive; veritable marine cash cows, grazing the ocean’s plankton and generating vast sums of renewable cash for the local economy in the process. And because manta rays live for multiple decades, the total revenue that each manta ray can generate during its lifespan is immense.
Presenting data like this to key decision makers shows that manta ray conservation is by far a much more viable economic proposition than fishing. By comparison, a single dead manta ray’s meat and gills will sell for just a few hundred US dollars, at most, for the fishermen who caught it. A onetime deal, the costs of which are incalculable, both in terms of future revenue lost, and the ecological impoverishment.
Impacts of Tourism
As tourism continues to grow in the developing nations of the world where manta rays are often found, the impacts on these tropical destinations, the coral reefs and their inhabitants, are becoming more widespread. Most of the new hotels and resorts which cater to the tourists are built along pristine shorelines, or on deserted islands, dramatically altering the terrestrial landscape to make room for the infrastructure of modern day luxuries in a tropical paradise. Channels are blasted in reefs to allow access for boats. Jetties, swimming pools and water villas are built out into the water from the beaches, altering the natural flow of the currents, which shape the sandy beaches upon which the tourists so desire to lounge. Increased sedimentation from the removal of vegetation on land, pollution and nitrification further impact the pristine reefs, killing the corals, which are the foundation for the whole ecosystem upon which the reef manta rays rely.
Out in the open water the impacts of tourism and a growing economy are also felt by the wildlife. Reef fishing pressures are scaled up to feed the growing local population and hungry tourists, eager to dine on the local cuisine. Speed boats and pleasure craft with powerful outboard engines charge backwards and forwards as they ferry tourists to and from the airport or on pleasure excursions, dramatically increasing the likelihood of collisions with slow moving marine animals on the surface of the sea.
Manta rays also swim into the lures and hooks cast by fishing tourists and local fishermen alike, as they angle for smaller prey in the rich waters of the coral reefs. The lines usually snap, not designed for such large quarry and the hooks remain imbedded in the animals, while the snapped fishing line trails out behind. These lines often become wrapped around the bodies of manta rays as they feed; barrel rolling backwards in tight loops the entangled line knots, tightening its grip on the mantas body with each beat of their wing-like pectoral fins. Like cheese wire, the line cuts deeper and deeper into the mantas flesh.
Sometimes the mantas are able to break free as the hooks fall out or the line breaks, other times they seek the help of humans to rid themselves of these deadly lines and sometimes they are not so lucky, succumbing to horrific injures which grow worse with the perpetual motion of their pectoral fins. Many of the manta rays recorded by researchers globally bear the scars of fishing lines, with roughly 10% of the population in the Maldives showing some form of anthropogenic injury, such as missing cephalic fins from fishing line, or propeller scars along their backs.
More directly, interactions between humans and mantas also have impacts on the manta’s behaviour. The Maldivian Manta Ray Project is currently undertaking studies to fully characterise the interactions and reactions during manta ray tourism activities. These studies will allow us to put into place relevant recommendations for tourism and develop codes of conduct for use throughout the Maldives and around the world. Early indications suggest passive observation of manta rays during interactions have negligible negative effects on mantas and that low levels of disruptive behaviour on the part of tourists also has little effect.
This would suggest that manta ray tourism can have a long future in aiding the conservation of these amazing creatures as long as simple codes of conduct are adhered to by the tourists and tour operators alike. However, when tourism is left unmanaged, the most famous and easily accessible manta aggregation sites attract tourists in such high numbers that without active management and the enforcement of protective regulations, these sites can become devoid of the very animals which the hordes of eager tourists have come to see.