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September 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 39, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Mantas Are More Valuable Alive than Dead

from the September, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Like sharks, manta rays too are under threat. They're being hunted by fishermen for their gill plates, highly desired in Asia as a tonic for many medical conditions. A 2011 study by the Manta Ray of Hope Project estimated the value of this market at $11.3 million annually. But a recent study reported in PLOS One states that manta ray-watching tourism, if managed properly, can be a far better economic alternative in countries where the animals are big attractions.

Three researchers from the conservation nonprofits WildAid, Shark Savers and the Manta Trust reviewed 23 countries that have manta-ray dive and snorkel operations, then estimated that direct revenue to the dive operators is at least $73 million annually. Direct economic impact (hotel rooms, restaurant meals, etc.) on those tourist regions is $140 million annually. Ten countries account for 93 percent of that revenue estimate -- Japan, Indonesia, the Maldives, Mozambique, Thailand, Australia, Mexico, the U.S., Micronesia and Palau.

One example where tourism trumps fishing as the top job for locals is in Indonesia's West Papua Province, where manta rays and sharks are big tourist attractions. A 750-square-mile conservation zone was established through lease agreements between villages, that own the fishing rights for the area, and Misool Eco Resort, built on an island previously used as a shark finning camp. Locally-hired rangers, some of whom were formerly in the shark-finning trade, now enforce regulations in the conservation zone. The villages benefit from lease fees, employment, the resort's purchases of their fish, and improved fishing in the waters surrounding the no-take areas of the conservation zone. Recognition of the value of marine ecotourism has since led to legal protection in Raja Ampat for manta and mobula rays, sharks, turtles and dugongs.

One downside is overcrowding at some of the sites where people go to see the mantas. All the attention could negatively impact the rays' behavior; one dive operator surveyed said that manta ray sightings had decreased at very crowded sites.

Still, the decline of manta rays from overfishing, combined with their slow reproductive rates, means that manta fishing revenue will disappear. Meanwhile, the demand for marine-focused eco-tourism is expected to grow significantly over the next 20 years. While that may not keep this threatened species off the extinction list, the study asserts that development of well-managed tourism offers a promising alternative - for the rays and for the people.

"The Global Economic Impact of Manta Ray Watching Tourism," by M.P. O'Malley, K. Lee-Brooks and H.B. Medd; PLOS ONE 8(5): e65051. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065051

PS: Shark Savers has recently merged with WildAid. For more information on WildAid's important work, go to

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