In a significant move to safeguard the world’s largest known manta population, Peru’s Ministry of Production announced on January 1st, strong regulations to protect the oceanic manta ray. It is now illegal to target, capture, and retain a manta ray or trade in any manta parts across their entire range, from Peru to Ecuador, where they are already legally protected.
In 2010, our Manta Ray of Hope team identified Peru as one of the key regions in urgent need of manta conservation. Though relatively unknown to the rest of the world, our initial research indicated that an important population of manta rays frequented the Peruvian coastline where fishermen would opportunistically target them. However, very little was known about this manta population or how much directed-fisheries and bycatch were impacting the population. Assembling a team including WildAid, Manta Trust, and Peruvian NGO Planeta Océano, we established a project to understand the state of this manta population and devise a conservation strategy to protect Peru’s mantas.
Swimming With the Mantas
In April of 2015, I traveled with Josh Stewart of Manta Trust to Peru to document the current status of the project and to meet with the government concerning the status of manta conservation in Peru. Our journey took us from the bustling city of Lima to the quiet coastal fishing community of Tumbes in northern Peru, the launching point for our manta research work. Here we met up with our Planeta Océano teammates who introduced us to key community members engaged with the project, including Wilmer Ayala, field coordinator, and two inspired local boys, Jorge Ladines and Andy Estrada. It was our time spent with Andy and Jorge that not only cemented our beliefs that protecting Peru’s manta rays was not only critical to the survival of this manta population, but also presented significant tourism opportunities for these lower income coastal fishing communities.
We spent the better part of a week with Andy and Jorge, out on the sea searching for and swimming with manta rays. Though both boys were eager and excited to participate in our manta program, neither of these brave young lads had ever snorkeled miles offshore, let alone with giant mantas measuring 12-18 feet in wingspan! In fact to our knowledge, they would be the first kids in Peru to attempt this! I recall distinctly their trepidation and nervous excitement as we approached the first manta, its massive wings cutting the waters surface as it cruised along. The boys sat on either side of Josh on the boats edge, their fins dangling above the water and masks on their foreheads. When I shouted “Jump” Jorge glanced back at me with a look in his eyes that asked “really!” But there was no time to waste and Josh tugged both boys into the water with a splash, followed by me with my camera documenting this special moment.
As the manta brushed within feet of the boys, fear gave way to exuberance and awe. Suddenly both developed a profound appreciation for the power, grace and gentle demeanor of these magnificent creatures. Later on the boat, they could barely contain their excitement. Jorge was overcome by the experience and stated, “snorkeling with mantas is the best thing that has happened in my life.” Andy added that his new goal in life was to become a manta researcher. These words really touched us and drove home how important it was that we succeed with our manta conservation program. We spent the rest of the day and the days following, swimming with mantas as the boys basked in the excitement of their newfound passion. These boys represented a brighter future for mantas in Peru – a new generation of researchers, guides and conservationists blossomed before our very eyes.
Progress on Protection
Our trip wrapped up in Lima, where we met with the government to discuss the status of the manta protection regulations. We were delighted to hear that the government was eager to pursue protection, and one representative stated, “manta ecotourism is a potential source of income for the fishermen” and that because Peru is a member of the Convention of Migratory Species that protects mantas, “the state has an obligation to implement protections.” The government further committed to work directly with our Planeta Océano team to draft and implement the new regulations.
Throughout the remainder of 2015, our team worked diligently to support the government’s efforts to gather the necessary data and evidence to support the regulation. To our delight, the government of Peru was eager to see these protections enacted, recognizing that mantas presented a great opportunity to protect a vulnerable and charismatic species in Peru while creating new tourism potential for coastal communities.
On January 1, 2016, we received the news we had been waiting for, the regulations were officially announced, declaring full protection for manta rays in Peru!