Manta Trust, an UK Charity that coordinates research and conservation efforts about mantas all around the world, has recently included Palau as one their new projects with Mandy Etpison as the project leader.
The Manta ID Palau Project was formed to learn more about the life cycle, population demographics, reproduction, habitat usage and anthropogenic pressures facing the population of reef mantas which inhabit Palauan waters. In recent years tourism has greatly increased around the pristine reefs of Palau, giving cause for concern for the local population of manta rays and how they should be best managed. Fleets of Chinese and Japanese boats also legally operate in Palauan waters and given the increasing demand for manta ray gill plates there is concern that illegal manta ray fisheries could begin, hence increasing the urgency to learn more about how these animals spend their time in Palauan waters.
- Increase local awareness and site management
- Identify new sites using aerial & time-lapse surveys
- Study manta movements around Palau
- Continuing photo ID with website updates
Project Start Date: January 2010
Why this is important:
Palau was always known for its schooling fish and sharks, while neighboring Yap was better known for its manta rays. In the last 5 years however, Palau has also become better known for its mantas, especially at German Channel, a key manta ray cleaning and feeding site which is considered by most people to be one of the top three dive spots in Palau.
Hundreds of divers and snorkelers visit this site on a daily basis during manta season. In addition to being a hotspot for manta rays, this area is also a busy boat-traffic channel. Without effective site management the threats to manta rays and tourists from speeding boats will continue to be an increasing problem. Since this project has begun a number of manta rays with boat propeller scars have been observed. In addition, as tourism levels have increased anecdotal evidence from dive guides using the site on a regular basis suggests that mantas are preferentially using deeper cleaning stations to avoid interacting with the high volume of tourists.
In order to effectively protect these mantas from the increasing anthropogenic pressures more must be learnt about their movements and behaviors in order for informed and effective management measures to be implemented which can counteract these threats.
In addition to the pressures of tourism, Palau has over 75 Chinese longline vessels and more than 8 Japanese purseiners operating legally in its waters, several of which have been caught participating in illegal shark finning in the past. With the strong demand for manta gill plates in Asian markets this could also pose a threat to the mantas, so establishing baseline data on the manta population will help to identify any population declines which may occur as a result of these illegal fisheries.
Local culture and awareness are also a vital piece of the puzzle in managing these species. Palauan culture has strong links with the ocean, mantas and mobulas have fortunately never been targeted as a fisheries species, in fact Palauans fear these mobulids, but hold other rays such as the eagle ray in high esteem honoring it as a God.
The Republic of Palau is an island nation located in the western Pacific Ocean made up of some 250 islands with a total land area of just 458km2 and a 200 nautical mile ocean economic zone. The economy of this small nation relies heavily on the sea with the main sources of income based in fisheries and tourism. Tourism is a growing area and manta rays are playing an increasing role in what draws many of the tourists to Palau.
At some dive sites records of individual mantas date back over twenty years, and due to high numbers of juveniles observed and courtship behaviors seen it is believed that these sites might also be vital mating and nursery areas.
As well as photo-ID studies this project is now incorporating both time lapse and aerial surveys to gather further details on the Palauan manta population. Camera traps are being set at key sites to look at habitat usage and have contributed over 50 new IDs to the project. Aerial surveys from helicopters have been used since 2013 to identify new manta ray aggregation sites.
By investing in learning more about manta ray habitat use it is hoped that the project will be able to make robust scientific suggestions about managing mantas rays and tourism in Palau, enabling operators to select from a wider range of sites, therefore reducing pressure at key areas (such as German Channel) as well as informing tourism management solutions. In addition, by surveying over this broader area the project will be able to learn and understand much more about the movements of manta rays in Palauan waters and the wider scale management requirements for this species including the management of the threat of illegal fisheries.
- Work towards the implementation of national protective legislation for manta rays in Palau.
- At the end of the 2013 season a manta report will be produced detailing the project’s findings, upon which suggestions for site management at the key manta tourism sites will also be made.
- Continue the ongoing program of monitoring the numbers and identities of individually recognizable reef manta rays in Palau using the Photo ID Programme from which estimates of the total manta population can be made for Palauan waters.
- We will continue to update the manta website and share our information with tourists and local tour operators in the coming years, and encourage locals and tourists to submit their photos for our ID database.
- Assess and compare the apparent range of movement patterns exhibited by the individually recognized reef manta rays in Palau.
- Record any signs of reproductive activity among reef mantas at the key study areas, or any other site in Palau.
- Monitor any threats to the reef manta population and their habitat by monitoring tourism activities at key manta aggregation sites and recording incidences of targeted or accidental injury.
- Publication and distribution of children’s activity booklets on manta rays and dugongs to all 7/8 graders in Palau (March 2013).
- Photographically identified over 220 individual mantas in Palau, all of which are posted on the project’s website: www.mantaIDpalau.org.
Partners & Sponsors:
Without the support of our partners and the generous sponsorship received we would not be able to achieve our work in Palau. We are therefore very grateful to these organizations:
- NECO Marine
- Coral Reef Research Foundation
- Rock Island Helicopters
- Etpison Museum
- Palau Pacific Resort
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