News Round-Up

Manta rays and whale sharks gain full protection under new fisheries law in Mozambique

After 20 years of research and lobbying efforts, the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) is thrilled to announce a major legislative victory for ocean life in Mozambique. A new commercial fishing law enacts sweeping protections for several threatened species, including whale sharks, manta rays, and all mobula species.

This new legislation, which goes into effect on January 8th, is a huge step in the right direction for the protection of threatened marine species in Mozambique. We commend the Mozambican government for taking these bold steps to protect the region’s breathtaking sea life, while still supporting the local fishing culture and economy.

“This law will make it far easier for our fishing communities to manage their impact by empowering them to create no-take zones and enforce rules limiting the use of gear that is destructive to important coral reef and mangrove habitats,” says MMF Conservation Project Manager Emerson Neves. “This will help us achieve our goal of sustainable fishing for generations to come, so we can both conserve our incredible fish life and allow people to have a stable livelihood and food source.”

The passing of this law is no small feat and has taken years of scientific research and lobbying by NGOs and institutions, including MMF, to highlight the importance of establishing protections for the threatened marine species in the region. We are grateful that the government has responded to the data and recommendations of scientists which has led to the formation of these new regulations.

MMF has been researching whale sharks and mobula rays in Mozambique for almost two decades. Our achievements have included the discovery that manta rays are two separate species and the first formal studies of these species in Africa. “The largest identified populations of both reef and giant manta rays in Africa have been identified off the southern Mozambican coastline, making it a critical region for their conservation in the Western Indian Ocean,” explains MMF Co-founder and Principal Scientist, Dr. Andrea Marshall.

MMF has also led groundbreaking research on whale sharks in the region. Our research into the importance of the whale shark habitat in the area and increasing human pressures, such as accidental catch in gillnets, which has halved their global population since the 1980s, helped to justify their inclusion in this new law.

“The Mozambican coast is an internationally important habitat for whale sharks, the world’s largest fish,” elaborates Dr. Simon Pierce, MMF Co-founder and Principal Scientist. “Protection in Mozambican waters provides a safeguard for the species locally, where whale sharks are the basis for sustainable marine ecotourism, but will also help these gentle giants to recover in the broader Indian Ocean. The Mozambique government has taken a commendable step for the worldwide conservation of this endangered species.”

Some of the most crucial and troubling data captured by MMF shows dramatic declines in observational sightings of marine megafauna like manta, mobula rays, and whale sharks. In 2013 we reported a 79% decline in whale shark sightings and an 88% decline in reef manta sightings, and sadly these trends continue. Our data now show declines of over 90% for giant mantas, reef mantas, and shortfin devil rays in the south of the country.

“Evidence of these stark declines, which have been attributed in large part to localized fishing pressure, are a testament to the urgency of these protections which go into effect today,” states Dr. Marshall.

MMF researchers have estimated the economic importance of manta rays and other megafauna to the Mozambican tourism industry, highlighting the economic incentive for their protection. The study, lead-authored by Dr. Stephanie Venables a senior scientist at MMF, illustrated the economic impact of manta ray tourism in the Inhambane province, including $34 million USD per year of direct economic impact of manta ray tourism, and a projected yearly loss of $16-$25 million USD if Mozambique were to lose manta rays.

Healthy populations of megafauna are crucial for maintaining healthy oceans. Manta rays and whale sharks are listed as vulnerable or endangered on the IUCN Red List with declining populations worldwide. Local conservation measures, like this law, are vital for the overall persistence of these species. Every organism plays an important role in an ecosystem, but ocean giants often play vital roles in maintaining balance and regulating resources in their environments. This in turn, naturally keeps fish populations healthy and improves the viability of fishing industries into the future.

In addition to the protection granted to mantas, mobulas, and whale sharks, the law also includes the following new regulations:

  • Fishers must land the full body of any sharks caught with fins attached
  • New clearer regulations for CCPs (community fishing councils)
  • A ban on destructive fishing practices on coral, seagrass, or mangroves
  • A ban on the harvesting of live coral
  • Bycatch must be thrown back unless you have prior written permission to use it for research
  • Turtle excluder devices are mandated on industrial and semi-industrial nets

While this law is a significant breakthrough, a number of other important species were not given protection. “This new protection is a huge step in the right direction and we’re thrilled that Mozambique is recognising the importance of some of the species we study, but there are other rare and endangered species in Mozambique that still lack protection,” explains MMF Manta Research Manager, Anna Flam.

“We’re hoping to use the positive momentum from this new law, combined with our research, to lobby Mozambique to add protection for hammerhead sharks, smalleye stingrays, leopard sharks, and wedgefish, among other vulnerable species.”

MMF is currently working with other NGOs to submit a list of species that we believe must be added as an amendment to the new law.

Header image: Dr. Andrea Marshall.