What Indonesia’s new conservation measure for mantas say about pricing nature correctly



Posted on 11 March 2014  | 
Manta ray over table corals.
© Cat Holloway / WWF-CanonEnlarge
How much is a manta worth? The answer depends on where the transaction happens, and over what duration. At the market, you may get $200 at most for a dead specimen. But keep the animal in the seas, and you could see it generate a cool $2 million from tourism revenue over its lifetime. With Indonesia having recently declared its EEZ (6 million km2) as a manta ray sanctuary, what does this move say about the prospects for a blue economy in the Coral Triangle?

Mantas at stake

The 2 types of rays found in Indonesia, the manta and the mobula, are listed under Appendix II of CITES. What makes the species vulnerable is their gills, which are much sought after for Traditional Chinese Medicine. Mantas are also frequently--but mostly unintentionally--ensnared by fishermen’s nets, with usually lethal consequences.

Help from an unexpected source

NGOs have been campaigning intensively to afford more protection for mantas and sharks in Indonesia and the Coral Triangle, especially over the last few years. But unexpectedly, what helped to tip the balance in favour of stricter manta conservation measures in Indonesia was not a single campaign or lobby: the argument was nested within the pages of a scientific publication.

Writing in PLoS One, WildAid’s Mary O’Malley and colleagues looked at the economic effects of manta ray tourism versus manta fisheries, and concluded that manta tourism brings Indonesia an estimated US$15 million each year, thanks to tourists who are happy to pay for a chance to swim with these animals. Meanwhile, the total annual income from manta ray fisheries in Indonesia is estimated at approximately US$442,000--less than 3% of the annual expenditures on manta ray watching tourism.

A good start, but follow up measures necessary

Signing this ambitious law is one thing; ensuring that it is implemented across such as vast area is quite another. As WWF’s Imam Musthofa has emphasized, “the real battle is monitoring, surveillance and enforcement.” In Indonesia, WWF works on many fronts to improve the management of elasmobranchs, a species grouping that includes sharks and mantas. This multi-pronged approach involves strengthening the implementation of the National Plan of Action on sharks, and reducing shark bycatch and consumption.

Re-pricing nature

If anything, the fact that the government’s decision to save mantas from direct exploitation acknowledges their long-term value is an encouraging step toward correctly re-pricing nature. It is well known that the failure to account for the full economic value of ecosystems and biodiversity is a significant factor in their continuing loss and degradation. This “re-adjustment” sends a signal that instead of chasing short-term monetary gains, the emphasis should be on conservation to reap longer term benefits, and share them equitably -- principles that have been extensively advocated through the landmark The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity project.

Towards a Blue Economy?

“There is no shortage of scientific research demonstrating how effective management of natural resources over the long term financially outweighs their short-term exploitation, from coral reefs to trees in important watersheds. Across the Coral Triangle, such arguments can help us to get a little closer to a Blue Economy,” says Jackie Thomas, Leader of the WWF Coral Triangle Programme. Over the last few years, the Coral Triangle Programme and WWF-Indonesia have helped to generate a much-needed discussion on this concept in Indonesia, which envisions business opportunities that capitalize on, rather than desecrate, the natural environment in a sustainable fashion.

In the case of mantas, this means paving the way for tourism businesses that allow curious visitors to swim alongside mantas in some of the world’s most biodiverse waters. And in remote parts of the archipelago, where many people struggle to make a living, nurturing businesses that allow wildlife to thrive also means growing people’s incomes in a sustainable way.

Manta ray over table corals.
© Cat Holloway / WWF-Canon Enlarge

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