Fiji Manta Ray Project

Little information is known about the manta and devil rays found around South Pacific island nations like Fiji. Tourism in this region is on the rise, and well-known reef manta ray (Mobula alfredi) hot spots in Fiji are starting to become crowded.

The Fiji Manta Ray Project is working to support the government, the tourism industry, and local communities, to implement regulations that decrease the negative impacts tourism can have on the nation's small population of mantas if left unchecked.

Early morning mating, Manta Channel, Yasawas, Fiji. Steve Pollett-1.jpg
 

PROJECT OVERVIEW

Consisting of over 330 islands in the South Pacific, the Fijian archipelagos are home to some of the healthiest reefs in the world. These rich waters bring tourists from around the world to dive and snorkel with the many species of marine life that reside there. In Fiji, manta tourism was valued to be worth US $1.59 million in 2013 and this figure has likely increased in recent years. The introduction of eco-tourism has significant potential to provide sustainable employment for local communities: either directly through manta excursions, or indirectly through a rise in service sector employment. The disadvantage to the increase in tourism is potential overcrowding and manta disturbance at key sites. Enforceable operator guidelines and management is essential to protecting this resource and paving the way for a sustainable future.

Fishing is an important source of revenue in Fiji. Although not specifically targeted in Fijian waters, mobulids (manta & devil rays) have been sighted in areas that are used by long lining vessels from foreign fleets, increasing the chance of by-catch. In addition, no data on mobulid catch rates exist in Fiji. Working in conjunction with resorts across Fiji, the Manta Trust is attempting to estimate the size of Fiji’s manta population and the movement of these animals within and around the archipelago, in order to gather baseline data on the current state of the country’s resident population. Research data is being used to recommend management programs and legislation that will safeguard against mobulid bycatch. Integral to the success of this project is the involvement of the local communities, working closely with villages to demonstrate the benefits of sustainable tourism over fisheries. Ultimately the project hopes to assist the Fijian people in making informed and effective management decisions that protect their manta and devil ray populations, and help to promote responsible tourism as a sustainable revenue stream that benefits both man and manta.

 

Studying black-morph mantas:

The Fijian population of reef manta rays (Mobula alfredi) consists of both black and chevron-morph individuals. In fact, Fiji's population boasts one of the largest proportions of black-morph mantas of any well-studied reef manta populations. This provides an excellent opportunity to study the genetic differences between these two colour morphs, and discover any underlying factors that may cause the wide variations in the expression of the black morph observed in different parts of the world.

 
 Photo © Stephen Pollett

Photo © Stephen Pollett

 

PROJECT GOALs

To better understand the population dynamics of manta and devil rays throughout Fiji, in order to support the promotion of sustainable mobulid eco-tourism, and the effective regulation of bycatch fisheries in the nation's waters. 

Additionally, the project hopes to increase our knowledge of the underlying causes of the black-morph, so that we may understand how and why its occurrence varies between manta populations.

 

Main Objectives

To achieve this goal, the Fiji Manta Ray Project works to meet the following objectives:

(1) Identify reef manta aggregation sites throughout Fiji, and assess the connectivity between mantas observed at these sites. 

(2) Discover the migration patterns, population structure, ecology and biology of the Fijian manta rays, using photo identification, citizen science, remote cameras, drones, environmental monitoring and local knowledge.

(3) Raise awareness of the conservation needs of mantas in Fiji, and the benefits of sustainable tourism over unsustainable fishing of these animals.

(4) Assist the Fijian government in establishing effective and sustainable conservation management and legislation, particularly with regards to managing tourism and reducing bycatch.

(5) Assess the distribution and ratio of black morph / chevron morph reef mantas within the Fijian population, and investigate the underlying genetics.

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Project Leader -stephen pollett

Being a keen swimmer for the majority of his life, it seemed only natural that Steve's love of water would extend to the oceans. While trying to decide what to do at university Steve was told he should do what he enjoys and so a course based in the water seemed like the only logical step. With this enthusiasm he gained a first class Zoology with Marine Zoology BSc (Hons) degree from Bangor University in Wales. During the final year of his degree Steve enrolled in a module based on elasmobranchs, where he learnt about the fascinating lives of sharks and rays, and also the relative lack of knowledge on them.

With this new direction he volunteered for six months in the Bahamas with Bimini Biological Field Station, where his love for sharks and rays increased dramatically. While there he caught the briefest glimpse of a manta ray from a boat, and so began a personal quest to encounter one of these amazing creatures in the water. However this moment wasn’t had until after he worked as an educational guide at London Aquarium for two years. In 2011 Steve volunteered with the Maldivian Manta Ray Project. Steve spent the next three months capturing and processing as many manta photo-IDs as possible, and having some special encounters along the way. Luckily as his time was ending in the Maldives there were discussions about a new project in Fiji. In September 2012, Steve headed out to Fiji where he began to spearhead efforts to better understand and protect manta rays in this corner of the South Pacific.

 
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Key Achievements

 
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Established first nationwide reef manta database in Fiji, with a regular study base in the Yasawas (2012).

 
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Supported Manta Trust colleagues in collecting tissue biopsies from Fiji reef mantas, to compare their genetics with other populations, and identify differences between black & chevron morphs (2016).

 
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Submitted National Status of Mobulid Rays in Fiji report to Fijian government (2017).

 

Photos from the field

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Sponsors & Partners

 
 

The Barefoot Collection - Barefoot Manta Island Resort

Since the initiation of the project in 2012, the project has been based at Barefoot Manta Island resort in the Yasawas (Drawaqa Island). The main reef manta aggregation site is just off the island, where strong currents funnel zooplankton into the shallow channel between Drawaqa and the largest island in the Yasawas, Naviti.

We are extremely grateful to The Barefoot Collection for their support, without which we would not be able to conduct our work in Fiji.