Manta rays are gentle giants and deeply awe-inspiring animals, who have a transformational and long-lasting effect on anyone who gets to swim with them.
But why manta rays? Why is it so important to protect them? What would happen if they disappeared?
And why aren’t we just as passionate about protecting whales or dolphins, just to name a few? What makes us so determined to protect manta rays?
The Threats to Manta Rays
Since manta rays are large animals, there are few other ocean creatures that could possibly harm them.
In reality, humans are the main threat to the existence of manta rays as a species. Fishing (both targeting manta rays – or fishing aimed at other species, but resulting in hurting or killing manta rays, which is called “bycatch”), unregulated tourism activities, and ocean pollution are the main reasons why both species of manta rays worldwide are currently threatened with extinction.
Manta Ray Fishing and Bycatch
Manta rays are often caught as bycatch in fisheries, meaning they get unintentionally entangled in fishing nets or hooked on longlines. Manta ray populations in the Indo-Pacific have suffered severely due to overfishing, resulting in a sharp decline.
In addition, some countries still allow the hunting of mantas for their gill plates, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Plastic contamination is becoming an ever-growing hazard to aquatic creatures around the globe. Unfortunately, manta rays are particularly vulnerable because not only do they directly ingest small plastic particles on a daily basis – their food source (plankton) has also been found to contain an unseen level of microplastics.
Read more about the effect of plastic pollution on manta rays below:
But plastics aren’t the only way ocean pollution affects manta rays; the decline of coral reefs has a direct effect on their overall health as well. Coral bleaching events (caused by oxygen-depleted waters but also by harmful chemicals like the ones found in many types of sunscreens, or in runoff from near-coastal housing developments) reduced the food sources available to manta rays.
Human activities are also driving up carbon dioxide levels which in turn leads to ocean acidification. Ocean acidification makes it difficult for organisms like corals and calcareous plankton to build calcium carbonate shells, in turn affecting the food chain that manta rays are dependent on.
A different type of pollution comes directly from fishing activities: discarded gear like fishing hooks, fishing nets, and fishing lines can seriously hurt manta rays. When we look at the injuries that manta rays around Hawaii have sustained in the past 20+ years, a majority of those were caused by fishing gear.
Unregulated Ocean Tourism
Unregulated ocean tourism activities can be very harmful to manta rays since they need undisturbed habitats to feed properly and reproduce successfully.
When tourists do not fully get briefed about the guidelines for swimming with mantas (or when oversaturation at manta ray viewpoints leads to a lack of oversight) divers and snorkelers might disturb and stress out the manta rays. Free diving, for example, is interpreted as a predatory move by mantas. Or worse, some participants might even try to touch the manta rays, which can cause skin injuries and abrasions.
Hull lights are also a huge threat to mantas: boats bringing tourists to the manta viewing areas turn on these lights (positioned within the hull of the vessel) to attract plankton. This, in turn, attracts the mantas who feed on plankton. But when the manta rays come near these hull lights, it causes them to collide with sharp, blunt, or immovable objects attached to the boat like ladders or propellers, often seriously injuring them.
The Impact of Climate Change on Manta Ray Population
Manta rays are known to have a naturally slow reproduction rate.
We believe it takes a female manta ten to fifteen years to become sexually mature; their gestation period lasts for twelve to thirteen months, and they only give birth to one pup at a time.
At the same time, climate change is causing sea temperatures to soar, which significantly impacts the reproduction rates of marine life. There is no reason to believe manta rays would be an exception to this.
Why it’s Important that Manta Rays Don’t Go Extinct
The Importance of Manta Rays for the Ecosystem
Manta rays are an essential part of the ocean’s food chain. Manta rays consume zooplankton, to maintain balance in their prey populations. Without manta rays, these prey species could become overpopulated and cause disruptions in the marine ecosystem.
The Economic Importance of Manta Rays
While unregulated ecotourism has a disastrous effect on manta rays, its counterpart (a well-regulated ocean tourism industry) is what can potentially save the gentle giants from extinction.
In many regions all around the world, the influx of tourists generates income for the local communities. Simple math makes manta rays worth more alive than they are dead.
This, in turn, provides incentives to protect manta rays and their habitat from harmful activities such as fishing or ocean pollution. It creates sanctuaries that are not just great for the manta rays but also allow locals to be less dependent on unsustainable economic activities.
How Lakamara went from Fishing to Manta Tourism
The evocative movie “Racing Extinction” (a must-see!) featured an excellent example of how Lamakera, a small village in Indonesia, was convinced to stop fishing.
The fishermen had depleted their waters of sharks (to fuel the demand for shark fin soup) and were now targeting manta rays instead. But through educational programs and showcasing the business model of the manta ecotourism industry in Hawaii, the Lamakera fishermen were able to pivot…
Instead of killing marine life, they turned to the more sustainable business model of keeping it alive.
The Importance of Manta Rays for Humans
As I already pointed out in the introduction to this article, manta rays often have a deeply spiritual and life-altering effect on people who swim with them. The experience of swimming in the ocean at night with these awe-inspiring giant fish is something we are determined to safeguard for many more generations to come.
And thankfully, most of the guests who join us on a manta ray moonlight swim understand this. They leave Hawaii inspired to become manta ray advocates, spreading awareness about the gentle giants – so their children and grandchildren get to join a similar transformational experience in the future.
Why the Focus on Manta Rays?
What makes manta ray legislation different from regulations protecting other marine animals?
We are passionate about getting regulations in place for manta ray tourism in Hawaii. This is not because we believe mantas are more important than whales or dolphins – but simply because whale and dolphin tourism are subject to federal regulations, whereas manta ray tourism falls under State supervision and is still completely unregulated.
This lack of regulations by the State does not only impact the manta rays as laid out in this article but can be dangerous for humans as well; in 2022, an experienced manta ray tour guide died in a tragic accident that could easily have been avoided.
There is a straight line to be drawn between having better regulations in place – and making the manta activity a safer place for everyone involved.
We believe regulations would have a beneficial impact not just on manta rays, but on the industry as a whole – putting less pressure on the crews of manta ray tours, making the situation at some of the (often crowded) manta ray viewing sites less stressful, and providing tourists with a more pleasurable experience at the same time.
Are manta rays a protected species?
Yes, manta rays are protected species.
Manta rays are listed on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species) Red List and under the Endangered Species Act in the United States.
Conservation Efforts for Manta Rays
In 2016, giant manta rays got listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, meaning it is prohibited to hunt or transport them.
Conservation endeavors have been intensifying in recent times, with global legislation and regulations, education and recognition initiatives, plus research projects and monitoring schemes.
The CITES convention, covering the international trade of certain endangered species of wild flora and fauna, includes manta rays since 2014 – which means that their trade is strictly regulated.
Additionally, some countries have taken steps to protect manta rays by implementing national legislation such as fishing bans or restrictions.
Read more about the current regulations affecting manta rays on this page – and follow our live blog to learn about our most recent efforts to get some regulations in place in and around Hawaii (and how you can help as well)!
And if you don’t want to miss a thing, sign up here to receive our newsletter in your inbox.
Education and Awareness Programs
Educating people about the importance of protecting manta rays is key to raising public awareness about the threats they face.
Along with us and Hawaii Ocean Watch (our non-profit organization that keeps a ”greenlist” of sustainable manta ray tour providers), there are many organizations dedicated to this cause, like Manta Trust and the Marine Megafauna Foundation.
Workshops, seminars, campaigns, and social media outreach initiatives around the world help to increase a sense of responsibility among citizens toward marine conservation.
Manta Ray Research
Research projects are essential for understanding more about the behavior patterns of mantas so that effective management plans can be implemented for them.
Several organizations conduct studies on mantas’ population dynamics or migratory routes using satellite tracking devices or acoustic tags placed on individuals.
In addition, regular monitoring programs allow researchers to collect data over time which helps inform decisions regarding the conservation measures needed for the species’ protection. We are proud to be participating in monitoring manta ray activities; read more here about our “citizen science” contributions!
It is evident that conservation efforts have been implemented to safeguard manta rays, yet more must be done.
3 Ways You Can Help Protect Manta Rays
Support Better Regulations for Manta Ray Tourism
It’s important to ensure that manta ray tourism is done responsibly and sustainably.
This means supporting the creation of regulations that protect manta rays from being disturbed or harassed by boats, divers, or snorkelers.
Tour operators should be required to adhere to strict guidelines such as limiting group sizes and tour times, prohibiting the use of hull lights, and providing information about the importance of conservation.
Reduce Your Plastic Consumption
One of the biggest threats facing marine life is plastic pollution. To really make a difference, try replacing single-use plastics with reusable alternatives – and repurpose or upcycle plastic packaging in your home or at work.
To really make an impact try using reusable alternatives whenever possible.
Participate in Beach Cleanups
Participating in beach cleanups helps keep our oceans free from debris and pollutants which harm both marine life and humans alike.
Get involved with local organizations that host regular beach cleanups or organize one yourself.
You’ll be surprised at how much trash one person can collect in just a few hours – it’s an easy way to make a difference!
Support ocean conservation organizations
Donating money to reputable conservation organizations is another great way to support ocean health initiatives around the world.
Look for groups that focus on protecting manta rays specifically or those dedicated more broadly towards ocean conservation efforts – either way, your donation will go a long way towards preserving these majestic creatures for future generations.
Spread the word about manta rays
The most important thing you can do to contribute to a better tomorrow is to raise awareness about the existing issues – and help others understand why it’s important for everyone to get involved.
Every individual in the United States and beyond can have a positive impact on the planet not just by personally participating in or donating to conservation efforts, but also by supporting local, federal, and global politics that guide us toward protecting the planet and our oceans from harm.