Shark Savers visits the sharks and mantas of Raja Ampat

Posted on April 25, 2011
Written by: Shark Savers

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Several members of the Shark Savers team recently returned from Raja Ampat. As many of you know, The Raja Ampat Shark and Ray Sanctuary was declared November 2010 in that part of eastern Indonesia in response to an initiative undertaken by Misool Eco Resort and Shark Savers. It was important for us to visit the area to view the fruits of the conservation efforts. We also witnessed the challenges of protecting it, first hand.

Background on the Misool Eco Resort’s Marine Conservation Area

Misool Eco Resort established a protected no-take zone in the southern part of Raja Ampat around its resort in 2005 and expanded it in 2010. This Marine Conservation Area (“MCA”) was created in cooperation with the local villages that own the rights to the reefs. A team of rangers comprised of local villagers patrols the MCA in conjunction with Misool Eco Resort.

Misool Eco Resort MCA sits within the larger Raja Ampat Shark and Ray Sanctuary. The Sanctuary bans the fishing of sharks, rays, turtles, dugongs, and also bans destructive fishing practices such as dynamiting, poison, purse seine, and other methods.

Raja Ampat is the most bio-diverse marine environment on the planet, with over 1400 species of fish and over 600 species of coral recorded so far. But even in paradise, there has been intense abuse of the marine environment. It’s hard to believe that these phenomenal reefs had sometimes been dynamited, most of the sharks had been killed and finned, and mantas were already being targeted for their gills. (See the Manta Ray of Hope film on our video page).

However, there are pockets of retained paradise in Raja Ampat and Misool Eco Resort is one of them. The pristine Misool Eco Resort MCA is a diver’s dream. This MCA boasts a level of protection that has already paid off. Here’s what Mark Erdmann, of Conservation International’s Seascape Program said about it:

"In the context of my work with Conservation International in Raja Ampat, I have dived the spectacular reefs in the vicinity of Misool Eco Resort several times each year since 2003. During this time, the passionate efforts of Misool Eco Resort and its local Ranger Patrol to protect these world-class reefs have been highly successful in improving the fish biomass in the area and bringing an end to previously rampant destructive fishing practices. I've noticed a dramatic increase in the number of snappers, groupers, and Napoleon wrasse on these reefs since the implementation of their innovative community agreement for a no-fishing zone in the area. Perhaps most heartening of all, in the past year alone I’ve seen more sharks within the MCA boundaries than I had seen in the preceding 6 years’ combined."

Our visit with the sharks and mantas of Raja Ampat

During our stay in April, it was exhilarating to see 20 or so baby blacktip sharks swim and patrol in the lagoon that hugs the resort. They were there every day and night as we walked to and from our meals or to the dive boat. The same shore was once a shark finning camp that had replaced a shark nursery. Now it’s back to being a nursery. In addition, our team spotted juvenile whitetips, mature blacktips, grey reefs, wobbegongs, epaulette (walking) sharks, and a scalloped hammerhead on our visits to the many dive sites.

Several members of our expedition participated in research on the manta ray population led by Guy Stevens of the Manta Trust. The purpose of this research was to build upon an archive of photos that have been taken at this site over the years and at others around the world to create a photographic identification database of individual mantas.

During the week we were there, over 30 individual mantas were photographed and identified at just one cleaning station, the beautiful Magic Mountain seamount in the MCA. Both species of mantas--the reef mantas and the much larger and more elusive oceanic mantas—coexist at Magic Mountain, a rare phenomenon. This research is complementary to a separate market and fishery study being undertaken by Shark Savers and WildAid.

The threat to sharks and mantas continue in Raja Ampat

As exciting and motivating as the progress of this area is, we were disheartened by an occurrence that reminded us of the need for constant vigilance. On the way to Magic Mountain one morning, the manta research team spotted a fishing boat at the edge of the MCA’s no-take zone and the Ranger Patrol was called.

The boat was apprehended and several sharks and rays were still alive in the nets and released. Unfortunately, 20 endangered scalloped hammerheads and 34 other sharks and rays were already dead.

The next afternoon, another boat was spotted out by the Daram Islands, the newer part of the MCA. We accompanied the ranger patrol boats to document the search and, if we found them, the seizure. The boats were gone by the time we reached the islands. A few days after we left, three local fishermen in dugout canoes who were spotted fishing at the Eagles nest dive and stopped by the ranger patrol. 
These incidents highlighted the need for not just the ability to patrol and apprehend, but also provide penalties for the fishermen to prevent further incursions. The protocol for all three needed improvement.

Improving conservation methods in Raja Ampat

To that end, the Directors of MER met with the district leader who confirmed that he would support them by legally processing all future vessels that come into the area. He also defined a protocol for confiscating the vessels documentation and impounding the boat. The local community leaders and the head of two villages have now made an "Adat" ruling imposing a significant fine. This is the local government support needed to effectively respond to both small and large fishing boats within the MCA.

Furthermore, The Nature Conservancy, which manages other Marine Protected Areas in the southern part of Raja Ampat, has confirmed that police officers stationed at their field station in a nearby village is available join the Misool Eco Resort Ranger Patrol and arrest fishermen.

In addition, the much-needed new Ranger Patrol boat just arrived. It reaches a top speed of 29 knots with 8 passengers. This boat will improve the coverage of the MCA throughout the year, regardless of the weather conditions and sea state.

The longer-term effort for the larger Shark Sanctuary is also progressing. Beginning as a Bupati declaration, it is now progressing into a provincial law. In meetings during our stay, Shark Savers agreed to develop on an awareness and education program to promote the new Shark and Ray Sanctuary to the local people. Most people in the area don’t know about it or its value to them.

While seeing continued poaching was not on our ‘official’ agenda, it was important for us to have a complete picture of the challenges ahead. We are also heartened that progress is being made to strengthen protections. We are that much more committed to preserving these amazing seascapes and animals for all time.

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