Manta rays are an iconic flagship species: for me they’re one of the main representatives of the elasmobranchs, which include sharks and rays. They’re the smartest of the rays: they have this big brain-to-body size proportion. Now we’re facing such a critical situation for sharks and rays globally – it’s one of the most threatened groups there is on the planet – conservation of giant mantas is a real eye-opener for the conservation of sharks and rays and marine environments more generally.
The fishermen we were working with [at Planeta Océano] were keen to talk about giant manta rays. They would sometimes talk about how the rays would interact with fishing nets. It was something that immediately sparked our interest, because at that time – around 2011 – giant manta rays were completely disregarded in Peru. The fishermen knew they were there, but they were seen as a species you’d accidentally harvest and then put back. The general community didn’t know, at some points, that manta rays even existed. If you look at pre-Inca ceramics and pre-Inca culture, there are potteries that show giant manta rays. So they were part of the culture but had somehow been forgotten.
Manta rays in Ecuador have been protected since 2010. But they were migrating into Peruvian waters and being harvested there. The harvest was mostly accidental, but occasionally intentional. Fishermen weren’t very dependent on the species – it wasn’t something that was extremely reliable. Maybe in a year we’d find something like a dozen mantas that had been harvested. The mantas didn’t really generate an economic value: it wasn’t a very high value meat.
We noticed that eco-tourism was probably the most long-term solution we could have for the conservation of the species. In the case of conservation, you need things to be self-sustainable. And if you want things to be self-sustainable, on one side you need to incorporate the community and the population; but on the other, you need things to work economically in the long-run. A lot of these market-based approaches are really important. Otherwise, you can’t get funding forever to be doing things.
There’s no fixed situation for every challenge. Everything has pros and cons and everything has to be well-managed. In the case of eco-tourism, it is a long-term solution because there is a market in northern Peru – a growing market, I’d say – of tourists in that area. It’s one of the most important coastal destinations in the country, even more because there’s a proposal for a Marine Protected Area nearby.
What we want is for eco-tourism to serve as a self-sustaining platform for science and monitoring. So when the tourists and the fishermen go out to sea, they will also be collecting data that will be fed into this adaptive management system so we can see what goes well and what doesn’t. That’s a really big component of our work – engaging people in research and following certain protocols about the best way is to swim with mantas, what’s the capacity of boats that can convene in a certain area, and so on.
It’s not that we don’t want the fishermen to be fishermen anymore. We’re giving them an additional source of income. So at the moment what we want is for them to not harvest giant manta rays and to instead become sustainable fishermen. In theory, if you really care about manta rays, you will care about its ecosystem and you’ll want to fish sustainably as well. But it’s not that we want to change their livelihoods. They’ll keep on fishing, but they’ll have this additional job that can generate income for their families.
In 2009 we founded a network called the Marine Educators Network in Peru. We work with over 50 schools; we build capacity and teachers, we integrate the classrooms, we have an incubator project. We’re working with the ministries of education and the environment to develop a teachers’ guide for marine education.
We work a lot to generate multiplier effects within communities. So, for example, if I’m going to run an education programme, it’s not just me or my team going workshop by workshop. It’s us empowering the teachers to have the capacity to do that by themselves. It’s about generating a movement and a force that allows more people to become involved.
1984 Born in Peru
1988 Family relocated to Vancouver, Canada
2006 Joined Projeto TAMAR in Brazil to monitor and protect sea turtles
2007 Obtained a BSc in biology at the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina
2009 Started a Marine Educators Network to formally introduce marine issues into the local educational system in Tumbes, northwestern Peru; Founded Planeta Océano, a non-profit organisation conserving and restoring coastal and marine environments
2011 Became an Ashoka Fellow
2012 Started working with giant manta rays
2016 Named a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate
This was published in the July 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.