December 25, 2016
We are proud to partner with Kerstin Forsberg- 2016 Rolex Award Recipient!
With their seven-metre wingspans, giant manta rays are a captivating sight as they glide through the water. “They are just majestic,” says Lima-based conservation biologist Kerstin Forsberg of the iconic species she became determined to protect after discovering the extent of their vulnerability.
@ Getty Images, Martin Strmiska
The tropical marine ecosystems in northern Peru support the country’s greatest marine biodiversity, giving life to more than 500 marine species. Taking advantage of the nutrient-rich waters is one of the world’s largest regional populations of giant mantas (Manta birostris), estimated to number over 650.
Giant mantas, which are plankton filterers, are classified as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with an “elevated risk of extinction”. Thousands are caught each year across the world to satisfy a lucrative market for their dried gills, which are used in traditional medicine. In Peru, fishermen reported taking up to dozens of mantas in a season for fish meat, putting the species under severe pressure, especially as they are slow to reproduce. Giant mantas take from seven to 10 years to reach maturity and produce just one pup every two to seven years.
“Giant mantas are extremely peaceful and completely harmless. They’re marvellous flagships for all vulnerable marine species,” says Forsberg. Through her NGO, Planeta Océano, Forsberg has been leading a project to change the way Peruvian communities perceive mantas – not just in terms of their ecological importance, but their potential value as high-profile tourist attractions that will make them worth a great deal more alive to Peru’s many coastal fishing communities. Though some tourists enjoy diving and whale-watching expeditions, marine tourism is still developing in northern Peru. Forsberg’s giant manta project could be a turning point in the perception of Peru’s ecotourism offer, particularly in its community based focus.
@ Rolex, François Schaer
Her long-term aim is to develop this giant manta project into a model that can be used in sustainable community-based initiatives for many different types of marine conservation projects worldwide.
Learn more about Kerstin’s work with giant manta rays in the video below!
The manta ray conservation initiative began in 2012, in collaboration with WildAid, the Manta Trust, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, Project AWARE and the New England Aquarium. The project attracted additional support from local government institutions, but Forsberg’s early attempts to lobby the Peruvian government about the importance of conserving giant mantas did not go far. “Our proposal to legally protect manta rays in Peru didn’t receive a response,” she
recalls, “but we kept knocking at doors.”
Then, in 2015, an extremely large manta weighing 900 kg was caught, and became a local media sensation. “It was talked about as a monster,” recalls Forsberg. “People had no idea of how vulnerable giant mantas are.” Building upon this front-page news, Forsberg’s continued lobbying led to a government ban on giant manta captures a few months later.
Forsberg works from an office in Lima but travels to Tumbes, a two-hour flight, once every two months, staying for a week to monitor and implement conservation activities. Other members of her project team visit once a month, joining a field coordinator and local volunteers based there. Their fundamental aim is to launch sustainable, locally operated manta tourism that will be commercially valuable, and encourage fishermen and tourists to become citizen scientists who will collect reliable data about giant manta distribution.
@ Rolex, François Schaer
In addition, an educational outreach programme, organized with Planeta Océano’s Marine Educators Network, is explaining giant manta conservation in more than 50 schools in northern Peru. “It’s about empowering local people to lead change, and we expect thousands of children and youth to now receive information about giant mantas from us,” says Forsberg. Talking about her work engaging coastal communities, Forsberg says: “It’s about approaching people, and listening to people. It has to be about what will work best for them. Solutions need to be developed together.”
The conservation project has so far involved three groups of fishermen collaborating with reports on giant manta sightings for Forsberg’s team; and, so far, about 40 tourists have gone out with fishermen on pilot manta-spotting expeditions.
The Rolex Award will allow Forsberg to strengthen community engagement, expand the number of fishermen taking part in the project, create locally-driven ecological monitoring of mantas, and help to establish a secure legal framework for manta tourism linked to international tourism organizations.
@ Rolex, François Schaer
Forsberg is in no doubt about the impact of her Rolex Award. “It’s definitely life-changing, and on so many levels,” she says. “It will allow us to take this project up to the next scale, nationally and internationally. This recognition is very important. Giant mantas are extremely vulnerable, and, in particular, marine environments are severely threatened. We need to engage more people in conserving them. There’s a lot of work to do.”