WHO COULD HAVE GUESSED when my team and I packed our bags in April to set off for the southern Maldives that within days the island would go into lockdown?
We had to return to our families variously in the UK, South Africa and elsewhere in the world, leaving behind the beloved manta rays and our friends in the Maldives. Back then team spirits had been high. We had looked forward to viewing the annual visit of the oceanic manta rays (Mobula birostris) and meeting members of the community in Addu and Fuvahmulah atolls.
We had been working hard with them to arrange a series of education and outreach workshops for students and the diving community. All tourism has come to a halt in the Maldives.
While the Maldivians have regulations in place to ensure sustainable tourism inside the Hanifaru Bay marine protected area each year, the lack of tourists at the start of this season will undoubtedly give the rays a much-needed break from the human pressures that the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve rangers strive to mitigate.
The lack of boat traffic also essentially translates to a reduction both in noise pollution and in potential for incidental boat-strikes. Again, a huge gain for the manta rays. The lack of tourism will have a positive influence on the Maldives’ natural environment and the wildlife therein, as it will internationally.
Manta Trust hopes that when restrictions are lifted and we can once more survey the manta hotspots, we will be able to document the effects of this extraordinary time. Tourism is not going to return to pre-Covid-19 levels immediately and our aim is to resume duties as soon as restrictions are lifted. We can use this initial period of adaption, when tourists are only trickling in, to assess how things changed during the “wilder” phase and monitor how marine life is affected as tourism capacity increases in the coming years. The manta season in Baa Atoll that was due to start in May will be the first time in more than a decade that the MMRP team will not be able to conduct any in-field monitoring, record the return of the manta rays, evaluate seasonal trends in sightings or advocate for their safety.
So what are our long-term concerns? A lack of tourism in the Maldives would have devastating implications for the Maldives economy and could result in a high level of unemployment nationwide. Our MMRP project will cease under these constraints, and we will be unable to monitor and research manta ray activities as we have done for the past 15 years.
We won’t know the degree to which they are being exposed to cumulative anthropogenic impacts and we won’t understand the implications this will have on populations internationally. In an act of desperation there might be an increase in the fisheries trade. Luckily, in the Maldives the mantas have never been exploited by any big fisheries, but on an international level this is not the case. As industries resume activities under a crippled global economy, there will certainly be more pressures on the fishing fleets and possibly on the trade in highly prized gill-plates to answer to a potentially increased demand for the “Asian health tonic”.
This would have huge negative implications on mobulid populations around the world. On an international scale we work with many projects that monitor fisheries, landing sites and trading locations to record the level of trade that exists for gill-plates. We’re still trying to gauge that level of trade but during the Covid-19 crisis can’t get out to record these figures. It’s unknown at this stage whether fishing has been reduced or curtailed through concerns about the virus.
It’s likely that some fleets are still fishing and that the trade is on-going, despite restrictions. As we patiently await a return and resumption of our infield research, Manta Trust works enthusiastically to engage with members of the public. We have launched regular webinars geared to inform, educate and spread awareness of the plight of mobulids. We have introduced a unique Kids’ Club platform to encourage and inspire a conservation-aware younger generation; we are publishing reports and writing articles to share findings with governments and the public, and we remain hopeful that our efforts will have a positive influence during this period of uncertainty and concern.
We dearly hope that our manta rays are enjoying this period of peace. We trust in our Maldivian friends who are the proud custodians of their ocean environs, and remain optimistic that we’ll be reunited with our flappy friends soon. That day can’t come too soon!
To support the Manta Trust, visit mantatrust.org to view its webinars or to adopt a manta ray.
This post originally appeared on Diver Magazine, July 2020 Issue.