A manta ray glides through waters off the Keauhou coast in this October 2009 photo. (Bo Pardau/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Three eagles rays swim in waters off of Oahu in this March 2009 photo. (Bo Pardau/Special to West Hawaii Today)
A manta ray documented by the Manta Pacific Research Foundation as having a 7-foot wingspan is shown in this May 2010 photo. (Bo Pardau/Special to West Hawaii Today)
A manta ray swims with saddleback wrasse in waters of Keauhou in the November 2009 photo. (Bo Pardau/Special to West Hawaii Today)
West Hawaii’s pristine coastal waters are home to an estimated 200 manta rays threatened more by entanglement in fishing line and gear than hunting thanks in part to a 2009 state law, said Keller Laros, a local diver and Manta Pacific Research Foundation co-founder.
While entanglement may not always be fatal, mantas have died because of it. In June 2009, a young male manta ray, known as “China,” became entangled on a buoy within Kailua Bay and was killed by a tiger shark despite efforts by swimmers and divers to free the marine mammal, Laros said.
“We see fishing line wrapped on manta ray all the time,” Laros told about a dozen people Saturday in Kailua-Kona. “We believe they’re most threatened by shoreline fishing.”
Laros said some 160 different manta alfredi, or reef manta ray, have been documented gracing the coast in an area stretching from North Kohala to Ka’u, said Laros, who began research in 1991 and helped establish the foundation in 2002. Forty manta birostris, also known as the Giant Ocean or Pelagic Manta Ray, have also been spotted here.
Though threatened by foreign items or materials in the waters, the mantas are protected by state law against being hunted within Hawaiian waters. In 2009, Act 92 was signed into law by then-Gov. Linda Lingle making it a misdemeanor, with a $500 fine for the first offense, $2,000 fine for a second offense and $10,000 fine for subsequent offense, to knowingly capture or kill a manta ray.
Laros said the law, which he helped create, was a proactive effort to ensure commercial hunting of mantas does not develop in Hawaiian waters, as it has in other areas such as southeast Asia where he said the marine mammal is harvested for its gills, which are most often dried, ground and capsulized for nontraditional medicinal purposes. A gill can net $500.
“If they had come here to fish, manta ray would have been wiped very quickly,” Laros said, noting that manta ray take 8 to 9 years to reach sexual maturity and can produce one “pup” annually.
Protecting mantas before there is a problem is particularly a good idea in Hawaii, where the economy is driven by visitor dollars. Manta ray tours attract visitors who generate an average $3.6 million annually in sales, Laros said.
About a dozen people attended Laros’ Global Manta Update presentation during Jack’s Diving Locker’s 8th annual Ocean Fair held Saturday at the diving company’s facility at Coconut MarketPlace in Kailua-Kona. The event, which features education as well as fun activities, is held each year by Jack’s Diving Locker to help raise awareness of and celebrate the marine environment, said Jack’s Diving Locker Director of Education Wendy Laros.
“We want them to be aware,” she said. “Through learning, they can hopefully understand more of what is going on here in Kona, as well as the world.”
For more information, or to volunteer for one of the 501(c)(3) foundation’s committees, visit mantapacific.org.