Conservation Success in Indonesia

Raja Ampat creates a true hope spot for sharks and rays.

Raja Ampat’s mantas are at the center of a thriving marine tourism industry that is now the primary economic driver of the region.

In 2010 the government of Raja Ampat in West Papua, Indonesia, took the bold step of declaring protection of all species of sharks and rays in its waters — the first such decree in Southeast Asia. This action was taken in recognition of the tremendous ecological and economic benefits of healthy elasmobranch populations to both fisheries and tourism.

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.

Police detonate a single charge placed in the hull of an illegal fishing vessel to sink it onto a sandy bottom where it will become a dive site.

In early 2015 the Raja Ampat police followed suit and sank a large Vietnamese ship that was captured with more than two tons of drying shark fins and strips of flesh from large rays and nearly 50 endangered hawksbill turtles in its hold. The captain and 11 crew members were each sentenced to approximately four years in prison. Though much of this grisly cargo might have been captured outside of Raja Ampat, community members spotted the ship deploying a massive drift gill net near Misool and immediately reported it. The water police responded immediately, took the ship into custody and, in coordination with the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, decided to sink the ship publicly. In this case the decision was made not to burn the ship but rather to sink it in a strategic location to create a new dive site — a fitting end for the poaching vessel.

Some of the 170 homemade bottle bombs discovered on the bomb-fishing ships.
While preparations for sinking the vessel (including cleaning it of fuel and lubricants and selecting a suitable sand slope for the sinking) were under way, local community rangers and water police caught two more illegal boats that were detonating homemade fish bombs. All 21 crew members were immediately arrested, and police found more than 170 fish bombs on board. The police have publicly committed to prosecute these fishers to the fullest extent of the law, and plans are being made to sink these ships as well.

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 More Information
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 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.
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View Stephen Frink's Raja Ampat photo gallery.

© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2015