Most things in nature are worth far more alive than dead, and this includes the majestic manta ray. In new legislation announced last week, Indonesia is protecting manta rays in every inch of its nearly six million square kilometers of its waters. No more fishing mantas.

Of course the move does not simply come out of an admiration for the two manta species living in the surrounding oceans. It comes too from recognizing the admiration others feel for these graceful and harmless beasts and the money people are willing to pay to come see them simply doing their thing in the water. That fact is already proven: Indonesia currently ranks second in the manta tourism trade.

manta with swimmers

“To spend time in the company of a manta ray is both a humbling and incredibly moving experience,” said photographer Shawn Heinrichs to Wired. Heinrichs' work with whale sharks has also appeared on MNN. “They are massive, powerful creatures, yet are incredibly gentle and curious. If approached correctly, they will interact and dance with you for hours on end.” That experience is something divers and vacationers worldwide are happy to pay for.

"Conducted by the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, with input from Conservation International, the review included findings from a recent study, led by  WildAid, the Manta Trust and Shark Savers, showing that a single manta ray is worth an estimated US$1 million in dive tourism revenue over the course of its life. The same animal is worth between $40 and $500 if caught and killed before the end of its average lifespan of 20 – 30  years." reports Environment News Service.

Manta rays take ten years to reach maturity and then females give birth to a single pup only every 2-5 years. This slow rate of reproduction means that heavy fishing is impossible to sustain. Killing them when they have only had 10-20 years during which to reproduce is, as the science has proven, a sure way to wipe out the spices.

manta ray gills

Mantas are caught primarily for their gill rakers, which are sold to southern China for traditional Chinese medicine though there is no proof that they have any medicinal properties at all. The thousands of pounds of meat is practically worthless. The demand for gill rakers has increased over the last decade and now rays are on IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species.

manta ray on boat

This move to protect them -- recognizing the greater value of tourism over fishing for both the immediate future and long term -- comes not a moment too soon, and Indonesia hopes other nations where mantas swim in their waters will enact similar legislation. "In protecting its manta rays, Indonesia joins a growing list of countries and states that have granted full protection to their manta rays including: Australia, Ecuador, the Maldives, Guam, Yap, Palau, the Philippines, New Zealand, Honduras, Mexico and the U.S. states of Hawaii and Florida," reports ENS.

manta ray with island

Ecotourism is a potential savior for many iconic species such as this and, when habitat is conserved for a single species, the benefits trickle out to countless other species. Indonesia now protects four species of sharks and rays, including whale sharks and sawfish within its national waters.

Photographer Shawn Heinrichs, whose photos appear in this post, spent five years photographing manta rays with Conservation International. You can get more updates from him on mantas by following his Facebook page.

manta ray group