Indonesia recently passed new legislation establishing its waters as the world's largest sanctuary for manta rays after researchers concluded the winged fish to be worth far more alive as an attraction for tourists than dead in fishermen's nets.
The decision, hailed as a "bold" move to protect dwindling manta ray populations, is in line with a growing trend wherein conservation measures are enacted largely due to its economic benefit.
Manta ray watching along Indonesian waters currently adds $15 million a year to the island nation's economy, compared to a far more paltry sum earned by fishing them. A study published last year in the journal PloS One found that a single living manta ray generates $1 million in tourist revenue over the course of its lifetime, and just an average of $40 dead.
Those figures were enough to convince legislators to declare Indonesia's 2.2 million square miles of ocean a safe haven for mantas, prohibiting them from being fished or exported.
Director of Conservation International in Indonesia, Tiene Gunawan, says government leaders were taken by surprise to learn that manta rays were valued so highly alive.
"That's a powerful argument," Gunawan told the AP. "Indonesia is such a big, big, big, country. When looking at the size of the water, it's huge. And I think we should start small and make some kind of pilot for this enforcement."
Demand for manta rays in China has led to a steep decline in their numbers in recent years, with estimates suggesting fewer than 20 thousand of the fish remain in Indonesian waters.