Panel OKs resolution to protect manta rays
A resolution advanced yesterday in the state House seeking to keep Hawaii's resident plankton-munching manta rays safe from poachers.
Tourists flock to the Big Island each year for the rare opportunity to swim with manta rays. A relative of the shark, the massive, diamond-shaped creatures are dark on their dorsal side with a creamy white underbelly and grow to reach a wingspan of about 20 feet.
Manta rays are safe in Hawaiian waters but have been targeted in other parts of the world to be used as food or aphrodisiacs.
"Worldwide, manta rays are becoming scarce, and they need our protection now more than ever," said Keller Laros, founder of the Big Island-based Manta Pacific Research Foundation.
Protecting the species before there is a problem is a particularly good idea in Hawaii, where the economy is driven by visitor dollars, he said.
The rays produce only a single pup every five to 10 years and do not migrate to other areas, said Laros, who leads dives to see the Kona rays three times each week.
Over 15 years, Laros' group has identified about 100 different rays in the Kona population and about another 100 off Maui, which also has a growing manta ray diving industry.
Some of the manta rays living near Kona have names and have become favorites of divers.
"Everyone gets excited if Lefty or Big Bertha shows up on a dive. Everyone would be devastated if they were killed and sold for their meat," Tim Clark said in testimony to the House Water, Land and Ocean Resources Committee.
Clark, who is a University of Hawaii graduate student and scientific adviser for Laros' group, estimated manta ray swims attracted 11,000 tourists who generated $2.4 million in revenue for the state in 2002.
The resolution urges the establishment of a working group to protect the rays and related animals from poaching and fishing.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources suggested, however, that all animals that are long-lived and slow to reproduce should be considered by the group.
Peter Young, chairman of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, said his department has the power to create emergency protection rules if a species is found to be in danger.
Both Young and Laros agreed there is no clear evidence now that Hawaii's rays are in danger. And Young said he does not want to begin overregulating Hawaii's species.
The working group would be one way to document whether there are threats to Hawaii's populations of manta rays, he said.
"Let's evaluate if there is a problem, and let's evaluate what the potential solutions are," Young said.
The resolution was passed out with amendments by the committee, including a request that the Department of Land and Natural Resources partner with nonprofits, recreational groups and other local groups on the project. The measure heads next to the full House for approval.