Mantas – Tale of Two Islands.
Text by Guy Stevens (Director, Manta Trust)
Mantas are the largest rays the world, reaching enormous wingspans of 7m and weighing in excess of 2 tons. Despite their formidable size they are gentle giants that feed on plankton filtered from the water through their gills. Overfishing and the trade in gill rakers for traditional Chinese medicines pushed mantas to the brink of extinction in many of our planet’s marine realms.
Off the southern shores of the Indian sub-continent lie two island nations whose seafaring inhabitants have for thousands of years depended on the rich tropical waters which surround their coastlines to sustain the country's populations and economies. Both nations are blessed with plentiful marine resources, which if managed sustainably will continue to generate valuable contributions to these nations economy's for thousands more years to come. However, under the varying pressures of national population growth, economic opportunities and political instability which are echoed across the planet, these two countries have chosen to walk different paths in their quest for greater national profits from the exploitation of their marine resources.
The long-term economic and ecological ramifications for the wider marine ecosystem as a result of these differing national resource management decisions are encapsulated by the regional fishery and tourism industry of one of the ocean's most charismatic and graceful giants; the manta ray. The mantas giant size, inquisitive and peaceful nature and their propensity to frequent tropical shallow reefs has facilitated a burgeoning tourism industry in the Maldives where enthralled divers and snorkelers seek out the thrill of an underwater encounter with these fascinating creatures. In the Maldives, manta ray tourism industry alone generating over USD $8million annually through direct revenue from manta dive and snorkel excursions. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, fishermen seek to catch the manta rays for their feathery gill rakers which are exported to China where it is believed the rakers hold healing properties, they are sold as an ingredient in a medicinal tonic. As a result, manta rays and their close relatives, the mobula rays, are being rapidly fished from our oceans at a rate which will lead to the commercial extinction of these species within just a few decades.
In today’s commercial and increasingly crowded world a country’s marine resources must pay their way. It is just not realistic to expect governments or communities to protect a species and its habitat for its intrinsic or ecological value alone. There must be a short term financially viable alternative to incentivise a move away from the more destructive and unsustainable practices, regardless of the long-term ecological and economical losses of such practices. By looking at the Maldives as an example we can see that while tourism does brings with it its own set of new problems, these are a vastly more acceptable alternative for Sri Lanka than the current rapid depletion of the country's marine resources through direct fisheries. This short-sighted view is only impoverishing the future economic wealth of the country as it begins to realize its tourism potential.
This feature was shot between 2007 – 2011.
Full edit of 95 images available on request.