The Manta Trust – Protecting rare creatures of the ocean

By Hannah Schartmann.

The Manta Trust is a UK-based charity that was formed in 2011 to coordinate global research and conservation efforts for manta rays, their close relatives and their habitat.

As charismatic megafauna, manta rays act as a flagship species, helping to promote and engage the general public in the wider message of marine ecosystem conservation. Through this top down approach to conservation the manta ray becomes the catalyst for change, engaging and motivating the general public, governments and local communities alike. We did a interview with Tam, to learn more about the work of the project.

Hi Tam, a warm welcome to the interview. You are working for the Maldivian Manta Ray Project. This project has the goal to protect mantas and devil rays. Why is it important to protect them? 

Mantas are some of the largest and most intelligent animals in the sea. Their complex behaviours set them apart from other fish, but much of their lives remain a mystery. Although we focus on mobulid rays (manta and devil rays), we see these animals as a flagship species. The strongest motivator of all is caring for an animal and its environment, creating some level of empathy towards the species that you’re trying to protect or its habitat. Manta rays are extremely captivating, they’re beautiful to look at. They’re something that people really seem to connect to and care about. If you want to protect manta rays and protect the species effectively, you have to protect the reef ecosystem as well. By proxy, protecting mantas equals protection of the coral reef ecosystem in which they live.

What do you think: What are the main threats and why? 

The greatest threat to mobulids is excessive targeted and incidental catch in fisheries. Fisheries targeting mantas for their highly-prized gills have had a devastating impact on populations, resulting in mantas being listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. In March 2013, following considerable work and pressure from the Manta Trust and other NGOs, mantas were listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This legislation means that countries must prove that any international trade in manta gill plates is sustainable and non-detrimental to the survival of the species. In 2016 similar success at CITES was achieved for all species of devil ray too. All mobulid species are now also listed on CMS Appendix I and II. These policy victories were great steps forward for mobulid conservation but, despite this enhanced protection, mantas are still being killed in their thousands and devil rays in their tens of thousands as bycatch in high seas fisheries. As a result, mobulids remain some of the most threatened fish in our seas. Other threats, such as the impacts of tourism and pollution, also need to be considered and concerted effort has been made in the Maldives to mitigate these pressures. 

Can you please tell me more about the background of your project?

The Maldivian Manta Ray Project was established in 2005 by Dr. Guy Stevens. He had just landed a job as a marine biologist at a well-known resort in the Maldives- The Four Seasons. At the time, very little was known about manta rays. The initial aim of the Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP) was to address these knowledge gaps (e.g. how long do manta rays live, how often they reproduce, etc.). However, once Guy started studying these species, he quickly become aware of the threats that they’re facing globally. This led to the creation of the Manta Trust.

Your project has been started in the Republic of the Maldives. Why did you choose this area for the conservation of mantas?

The Maldives has the largest known population of reef manta rays which have never been fished. This gives us the opportunity to study a population of rays which are as close to a natural state as possible. We have also been conducting a continuous study on this population for 15 years, giving us unprecedented insight into the population dynamics of this species. This long-term study will enable us to measure the impacts of the increasing pressures of ocean warming, acidification and pollution.

What do you have already achieved with your project?

Our Maldivian Manta Ray Project played a key role in gaining protection for manta rays in the Republic of Maldives. In 2014, The Manta Trust released the Best Practice Code of Conduct (CoC), as a guide on how best to interact with manta rays, aiming to minimise tourism activities’ impact on the natural behaviour of manta rays in the Maldives. In 2017, The Manta Trust developed the Manta Tourism CoC into a multi-language 10 step guide on “How to Swim with Manta Rays”. The guides are complemented with a short educational film for both snorkelers and divers. This media kit is freely-available to all resorts and tour operators, aiming to drive the message on sustainable tourism. The How to Swim with Manta Rays initiative has its own dedicated website (www.swimwithmantas.org), where operators and tourists can become equipped with the tools and information needed to make their excursions truly sustainable for the Maldivian reef manta rays.

What are your goals and plans for the future in the Maldives?

Unfortunately, the pressures on our oceans and their inhabitants are not going to reduce in the foreseeable future. Indeed, at the current rate of overfishing, coupled with the increasing pressures of development and climate breakdown, the Manta Trust will have plenty of work to do if we are to conserve these charismatic species and their home for future generations. Although manta rays are not fished in the Maldives, the increasing pressures of tourism development, our focus will be on providing the science and recommendations to the Maldives government to ensure effective conservation management decisions are made and implemented.

Do you have any messages for the general public regarding marine conservation?

I would like to leave you with two quotes: 

“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand what we have been taught.” – Baba Dioum

“Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected to and utterly dependent upon the existence of the sea.” – Sylvia Earle

For more information and to follow the work of Manta Trust:

https://www.mantatrust.org/

https://www.facebook.com/MantaTrust/

https://www.instagram.com/mantatrust

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