KAILUA, KONA, Hawai'i — Manta rays, with an average wing span of 22 feet, are getting their first designated protected area in the western Pacific, around Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia. Yap Governor Sebastian Anefal made the announcement at an oceanic conference Friday, saying waters around his state have been designated as a protected area for manta rays and their habitat.
Speaking at a U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting on the Big Island, Governor Anefal said the Yap legislature passed a law protecting the habitat out to 12 miles offshore, an 8,243-square-mile area, comprising 16 main islands and atolls and 145 islets.
"Man is not chief. The land and waters are chief," Anefal said. "We need to protect our waters to protect our way of life and ensure that resources are plentiful for our next generations. Setting aside all the waters of Yap State to protect the manta ray and its habitat is the first step in this effort."
A sanctuary management plan will provide an ecological approach to protecting the habitat for manta rays and other marine species, including sharks, he said.
Anyone harming or killing manta rays or destroying their habitat would face a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Anefal urged the task force to provide technical assistance and support to Yap in the development of the management plan for the newly created marine protected area.
"This is a bold move to conserve thousands of miles of ocean for an iconic species that is vital to the ocean ecosystem," said Tim Keeney, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration co-chairman of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. "Micronesian nations are leading the way in ensuring the long-term survival of their marine resources."
Yap's announcement is part of fulfilling its commitment to the Micronesia Challenge, a five-nation agreement to conserve 30 percent of near shore marine resources and 20 percent of land resources by 2020.
Yap is internationally known as one of the best dive destinations in the world to have a "manta ray experience," Anefal said.
The giant sea creatures are filter feeders and can be found in tropical waters around the world.
They were hunted across the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico for their liver oil and skins, and are still hunted in Mexico and some western Pacific areas where their meat is considered a delicacy.
Their numbers today are unknown.
The islands of the Federated States of Micronesia are spread across an area about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawai'i, which has no laws protecting manta rays. Several companies offer night dives to view manta rays off Maui and the Kona Coast of the Big Island.