>The effort rapidly gained traction, and in February 2013 the decree was formalized into enforceable provincial law, officially creating the Raja Ampat Shark and Ray Sanctuary, again based largely upon "mantanomics" — arguments that show conclusively that mantas are worth far more alive as tourism attractions than dead as fisheries products. Then in January 2014 Indonesia's Fisheries and Maritime Affairs minister announced that giant and reef manta rays would be protected species under Indonesian law. At the time, the global response to these announcements was largely positive, though there were a number of skeptics who openly wondered if the government would seriously enforce these laws.
>At the first- and second-year anniversaries of these laws it seems appropriate to step back and evaluate their implementation. Having just come off a two-week expedition in Raja Ampat, I can say without hesitation that Raja's sharks and mantas are looking healthier than I've seen them in 14 years of diving there. We regularly encountered feeding aggregations of 10-30 mantas and photographed a number of pregnant females. We watched with delight as a monthly shark feeding conducted by the Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre to monitor population size rapidly attracted nearly 40 blacktip reef sharks to the waters under their jetty.
>But what about enforcement? It's an unfortunate reality that as Raja Ampat's fish populations rebound, outside poachers increasingly target the region's waters. Fortunately, it is apparent that officials at all levels of government — from the Raja Ampat administration to the president of Indonesia — are taking the defense of their coastal communities' livelihoods very seriously. As part of his vision for sustainable economic development in the world's largest archipelago, Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who took office in October 2014, has instructed the navy to publicly sink any large illegal fishing vessels caught in Indonesian waters. In December 2014 the navy burned and sank six foreign illegal fishing vessels.
>At the national level the news is similarly heartening, with the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries leading the charge to shut down the illegal export of manta ray gill rakers to China. With technical support from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the ministry and national police successfully conducted sting operations between August and November 2014 that resulted in the arrests of five of the top manta traders in Indonesia and the confiscation of 227 pounds of dried manta gill rakers. In February the ministry announced the successful prosecution of the first of the arrested traders, which led to a 16-month prison sentence and a fine for slightly more than the market value of the confiscated gill rakers.
>Overall, the news is increasingly positive for Indonesia's long-suffering sharks and rays, and it highlights just how quickly a seemingly intractable environmental problem can be addressed with concerted political will and the support of committed conservation organizations. Just two years ago it was hard to imagine that the world's largest shark and ray fishing nation could switch gears so rapidly and become a true hope spot for elasmobranchs.
>For photos, videos and news about diving, science and conservation in Raja Ampat and its neighboring regions in West Papua, Indonesia, the heart of the Coral Triangle, visit birdsheadseascape.com. A multipartner conservation program, the Bird's Head Seascape initiative's purpose is to secure long-term management of the region — the global epicenter marine biodiversity.
>For More Information
>View Stephen Frink's Raja Ampat photo gallery.
>© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2015