Massive Manta Ray Bust Blows Lid Off Indonesia’s Wild Trade

<p>Paul Hilton for Greenpeace</p>
<p>Paul Hilton for Greenpeace</p>

An enormous sting in Indonesia may help end the massive illegal trade of manta ray gills - an industry that rakes in over $30 million a year.

The enforcement sanctions mark the first of their kind against a trader of sharks and rays in Indonesia, home to the largest shark fisheries in the world. The bust was the result of investigations carried out by Indonesian authorities alongside the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Conservation International (CI), working in conjunction with Paul Hilton, a Hong Kong-based photographer and conservationist.

[Warning: Images of animal products below](Paul Hilton for WildAid)

From late August to early September, four arrests were made on wildlife traffickers near Surabaya, the country's capital. Between them, officials discovered a shipment of 110 pounds of gill plates, nearly half of them from manta rays; 28 pounds of marine turtle meat; 53 snouts of the critically endangered sawfish; 1,231 pounds of manta ray bones; as well as one entire manta ray, sea turtle scales and nautilus shells.

(Paul Hilton for Wildlife Conservation Society)

Under Indonesian law, trafficking manta rays and their parts is punishable by a maximum fine of $25,000. Trafficking of sawfish, sea turtles and nautilus is punishable by a maximum 5 years' jail time and a fine of $10,000.

(Paul Hilton for Wildlife Conservation Society)

The trade in manta ray products, fueled by demand from Asian markets for health tonics, is lucrative - two pounds of manta gill plates can fetch $250-$500 in China. But there's a much less invasive way: tourism. Manta ray tourism alone attracts $140 million dollars every year around the world. Indonesia is one of the world's top destinations for manta ray tourism.

(Paul Hilton for Wildlife Conservation Society)

There are two species of manta rays - oceanic rays (M. birostris) and reef rays (M. alfredi). Both species are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Overfishing from commercial and artisanal fisheries is a severe threat to manta rays, as well as entanglement in fishing nets, pollution and oil spills.

(Paul Hilton for Greenpeace)

Though the manta ray trade is powerful, there is hope for manta ray protection. In February 2014, Indonesia's Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF) banned the hunting and trade of manta rays in the country. These arrests mark the first action taken against manta traffickers under the new regulations.

"We have succeeded to thwart the illegal trade of manta gill plates, which was recently listed as a protected species by the Government of Indonesia" said Asep Burhanudin, the Director General of Marine and Fisheries Resources Surveillance of MMAF.

Now, Hilton and officials are looking to prosecute one of the kingpins involved in the manta trade, who will appear in court in mid October, 2014, in Surabaya, Indonesia. Read more about Hilton's experience with the investigation here.