This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic News Watch blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.
Text and photos by iLCP Fellow Shawn Heinrichs
Transforming Indonesia’s Manta Fisheries: The path to creating an effective Manta Sanctuary
Indonesia announced the creation of the world’s largest manta sanctuary in February 2014. It encompasses a massive 6 million square kilometers of ocean, affording full protection for Oceanic and Reef Manta Rays. This was a bold move, especially considering that Indonesia historically has been the world’s largest fisher of manta rays and sharks. But this new declaration raises an obvious question – how will Indonesia make such a regulation effective?
Indonesia, an archipelago of over 17,000 islands spanning thousands of miles of seas, is home to millions of coastal fishermen that depend heavily on fisheries to both feed their families and support their livelihoods. In recent years, manta rays have increasingly been exploited by targeted fisheries that prize them for their gills, which are sold in China, and also for their meat and skin that is consumed locally. With the new manta regulation prohibiting fishing or trade in mantas, the unfortunately reality is that Indonesia lacks both the resources and manpower to ensure strict compliance through enforcement mechanisms alone. It is simply too big an area with too many fishing communities scattered across it.
It is no surprise that since the creation of the sanctuary, images of manta poaching in Indonesia are now being shared in social media and press, with strong commentary demanding better enforcement. And though these images do serve a purpose in highlighting that laws are being broken, they often do little to address the underlying issues. The establishment of fisheries laws with enforcement mechanisms will only be effective when coupled with programs that address the livelihood needs of the affected communities. These often poor and less educated fishermen have few options when it comes to providing for their families. They either fish or go hungry; it’s that simple.
Fortunately the communities that historically fish manta rays in Indonesia are uniquely positioned to benefit from another option. A peer-reviewed study led by WildAid, The Manta Trust and Shark Savers estimated that global manta ecotourism generates USD$140 million in annual revenues – USD$15 million per year in Indonesia alone – making the species highly valuable for many Indonesian communities who now rely on ecotourism for their livelihoods. Unfortunately, these same populations of manta rays are threatened by targeted fisheries which only generate USD$400,000 annually in comparison. But the transition from fishermen to tour guide is not necessarily a simple one.
Raja Ampat, in the Papua region of Indonesia, has become a shining example of marine eco-tourism, with manta rays serving as a conservation icon for this regency. Although their populations have been severely depleted elsewhere in the region, manta rays are still abundant in the waters of Raja Ampat, largely due to progressive conservation measures enacted by the local government. In November 2010, the head regent of Raja Ampat made a historic declaration, designating the entire 46,000 square kilometers (17,760 square miles) of Raja Ampat a sanctuary for sharks, manta rays, mobula rays, dugongs and turtles.
Tourists now flock to Raja Ampat to dive its vibrant reefs and swim with majestic manta rays and sharks. This has spurred the development of new tourism-based industries in the regency, enabling local communities to directly benefit from the conservation of these vulnerable species. Tourism brings new jobs; jobs provide income; income supports education, and with education comes a better understanding of conservation. Leaders have now emerged in the local communities who have become champions for conservation, creating a powerful voice to ensure that conservation is embraced and regulations enforced. As such, Raja Ampat has demonstrated that the application of regulations, coupled with a real commitment to the development of alternative livelihoods for local communities, can result in profound conservation results.
There are a handful of locations that account for the majority of Indonesia’s manta fishers, and at the top of that list is the village of Lamakera (a village we first visited in 2011), considered the world’s top manta fishing site. Villagers here have conducted traditional manta hunts for many generations, landing several dozen mantas per season. With the arrival of the gill-raker trade in the early 2000’s, the community converted to diesel engines and massively escalated the fishery, landing thousands of mantas in a single season. Since then, the fishing intensity has only increased, sending the manta population into a downward spiral. Now with the declaration of the nation-wide manta sanctuary, this community is at a critical crossroads: comply with the sanctuary and potentially loose a key component of their income; or, disregard it, sending the manta fishery into collapse while facing possible legal consequences.
Building off a spirited and successful community outreach event in April, in partnership with Reef Check Indonesia and with full support from the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, we are now working within the community to make lasting change in Lamakera. Having earned the trust and respect of many village elders, we are now engaged with the community at large, educating community members more thoroughly about the state of the oceans (and the inevitable fate of their industry and villages if they don’t act sustainably) and gathering wide-spread support for a community transition from manta fishing to tourism and other sustainable fishing options.
However, a community transition to a new industry can be extremely difficult, especially in a place like Lamakera, where the manta hunt is not just a source of income for locals but the source of their identity. As such, we are engaging respectfully and carefully to ensure that our presence is invited and respected throughout the communities. Our activities in the villages are completely transparent, and designed to engage every interested or concerned villager in public forum. The decision to stop fishing may come from the village elders, but the vast majority of people must support the transition to tourism for it to be effective.
A successful initiative that ends the manta hunts will not only play a pivotal role in helping Lamakera find a sustainable path forward, but will also create an inspiring example to the rest of Indonesia, and the world, that we can effectively conserve vulnerable marine life, even in some of the most challenging sites. The developing world is shackled with the mistakes of the first world. We must now work together to change the course of our collective history.
Shawn Heinrichs is an Emmy Award-winning cinematographer, photographer and marine conservationist. An independent filmmaker, he is the founder of Blue Sphere Media. Shawn works actively with organizations such as Conservation International and the Pew Environment Group, and serves on the International Board of WildAid, on the Board of Shark Savers, is an Associate Director of Manta Trust, and an Associate Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP).