Des solutions pour la planète

Struggle to protect giant manta rays

In northern Peru, the biologist educates local communities to preserve the wealth of the ocean, enlisting thousands of people to join the fight.

By Françoise Blind Kempinski
Published in September 2020icon-clockTime to read: 2min 58s

Encountering a giant manta ray is a moment of intense emotion, marked by the sheer majesty of this completely harmless animal, its immense wings spread wide, and its lightning speed when it decides to leave you. With its 7-metre wingspan, its 2-tonne weight and its unparalleled grace, Mobula birostris has only one predator: man. It is classified as a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List. The rate of population decline in the species is high in several regions of the world, reaching as high as 80% over 3 generations (about 75 years). The decline is estimated to be higher than 30% worldwide. In fact, the animal may only breed once every seven years, giving birth to a single pup that takes seven to ten years to reach sexual maturity. This makes it easier to understand why this beautiful pelagic animal is in danger.

A conservation biologist with a degree from the University of Peru and a PhD from Heriot-Watt University in the United Kingdom, Kerstin Forsberg has dedicated herself to the animal cause since childhood. In Peru, the country where she was born, she has made the defence of giant manta rays her most emblematic struggle.

I love meeting challenges, all kinds of environmental or social challenges.Kerstin Forsberg

Like a trophy

“I love meeting challenges, all kinds of environmental or social challenges,” she says. This one was within her reach. When, in 2015, a giant 900-kg manta was caught in the north of the country, at Tumbes, the newspapers made headlines exhibiting the animal as a monstrous trophy. At the time, Kerstin Forsberg had already been working for their preservation since 2012. Indeed, she had been active in the region since 2007, when she began her first marine conservation programmes, devoted to turtle protection – inspired by what she had previously achieved in Brazil. In 2009, Forsberg officially created her NGO, PlanetaOcenao.

The biologist had already tried and tested her method, which consisted not of forcefully pushing her cause but rather making local communities aware of the importance of preserving the ocean's riches for them. At that time, the rays were hunted for their meat and their supposed benefits in Chinese medicine. Sometimes they were also accidentally caught in nets. They migrated from Ecuador, where they have been protected since 2010, to the Peruvian coast where there was absolutely no protection. According to observers, some 1,000 individuals appreciate its plankton-rich waters.

Luckily they were not a major source of income for local fishermen, and Forsberg could begin her educational work in a non-hostile climate. She started with the youngest, in schools, and also with fishermen. “It is a long-term commitment because our goal is for communities to take responsibility for conservation themselves, and it takes time to convince local leaders,” she explains. “We educate them and maintain a close connection, so that they can then go on to educate other people.”

Persevering to succeed

In parallel with raising awareness among communities, she has also lobbied members of the Peruvian government to have manta fishing banned throughout the territory. This, too, was a long-term undertaking: “You need to educate, inspire and motivate people, and success has only come by not giving up,” she admits. Paradoxically, the capture of this magnificent specimen served Forsberg’s cause and accelerated the movement. On 1 January 2016, the law came into force. Since then, killing a manta is punished according to the location and the size of the ray; the amount of the fine is left to the discretion of the local authorities. But the penalties are publicised, and the inspectors of the Ministry of Production and Fisheries monitor the situation.

To offset any financial losses related to manta hunting and to consolidate her work, Kerstin Forsberg also helps communities promote new sources of income – with the aim of making them more regular and stable. Responsible tourism is therefore developing little by little. Fishermen are becoming eco-tourism guides, taking tourists out to meet the mantas ($200 per trip), and restaurateurs, accommodation providers and craftsmen should also eventually benefit from this manna.

You need to educate, inspire and motivate people, and success has only come by not giving up.Kerstin Forsberg

60 schools and 2,000 children mobilised

Following on from the enactment of the law, the biologist won a Rolex* Award for Enterprise. “Before receiving this award, we were working on a local project out of the spotlight; but afterwards, our project gained worldwide recognition and changed dimension,” she says enthusiastically. In fact, Forsberg then won a series of distinctions, including that of the top social entrepreneur in South America according to Forbes magazine, also cited by Fortune. She also became a partner member of the UNESCO Network for Education for Sustainable Development.

But you don't necessarily have to be a scientist to be involved in our research, as students and fishermen also take part.Kerstin Forsberg

Today, her NGO has enlisted some 60 schools to join the project, representing more than 2,000 children in northern Peru. She also brings together many volunteers, mostly very loyal, from around the world to help her with her programmes. Planeta Oceano systematically works on taking action in three key areas: education, sustainable development and research. “But you don't necessarily have to be a scientist to be involved in our research, as students and fishermen also take part,” Forsberg says, always striving to promote the dissemination of knowledge. Her initiatives have been extended to “devil fish”, or Mobula mobular (other rays close to mantas and classified as “in danger” by the IUCN), and now reach beyond Peru. Her next projects involve zooplankton and the protection of hammerhead sharks. “My dream is that everyone will understand their connection to the ocean and how vital the ocean is to every individual on this planet, and that they will take action,” Forsberg concludes. So that the majestic ballet of the giant mantas will never end.

*Rolex is the exclusive partner of Les Echos Planète

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