As we enter, the fisheries police present the ironically diminutive Mr. Big with a search warrant. He appears taken off guard and incredulous, looking on helplessly as authorities take only seconds to find the contraband in a back room. 50 kilograms of manta and mobula gills are strewn across the floor, 19.5 kilograms from large oceanic manta rays. Aside from the sad and pointless loss of marine life, the impact for Indonesia is also economic, with each member of the species generating $1 million in tourism over its natural life. The new law protects only the two species of manta ray, the oceanic and the reef manta, both listed on the 2013 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which helped Indonesia, as a signatory, execute the legislation. However, at this stage, it excludes the mobula ray, a close cousin.
With the raid in full swing, fisheries police quickly get to work, separating the gills of the various species. In the process, they also uncover 13 kilograms of dried turtle meat, another protected species. The surprise seizure possibly originates from the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, which inhabits the inshore reefs of Indonesia.
With the haul mounting, Mr. Big (who we've discovered is a local seafood restaurant owner named Suep, and one of Surabaya's four leading manta traders) faces a maximum fine of $25,000 for the sale and possession of manta ray gills. There's also a likely $10,000 fine for trading in turtle meat, as well as a possible prison sentence of five years.
A single kilo of large manta ray gills holds a street value in Surabaya of up to $175 per kilogram, while a kilo of sea turtle meat can fetch around $40, a substantial sum in a country where the average monthly income is $850.
Under police questioning, Mr. Big claims he's a sea cucumber trader, only receiving manta gills when requested, and pleading ignorance about the status of manta as a protected species in Indonesia. Interesting, since before the bust, he was only too happy to inform undercover agents that, not only does he specialize in manta gills and turtle meat, he was abundantly aware that his activities were illegal. Mr. Big will appear in court in mid-October in Surabaya, Indonesia.
Though our operation ultimately succeeded in its aim of capturing Mr. Big, the team couldn't locate the other 120 kilograms of stock he admitted to possessing. He did, however, reveal that the gills were coming from traders in Bali and East Java, yet more evidence of the continuing threat posed to oceanic species, and that our work to safeguard them must continue.