Maputo — New fishing legislation takes effect in Mozambique on Friday, offering full protection to whale sharks, manta rays and all species of mobula rays (also known as devil rays).
The Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF), which campaigns to defend threatened marine species, described the new legislation as "a huge step in the right direction. We commend the Mozambican government for taking these bold steps to protect the region's breathtaking sea life, while still supporting the local fishing culture and economy".
Cited in an MMF press release, the MMF Conservation Project Manager Emerson Neves said "This law will make it far easier for our fishing communities to manage their impact by empowering them to create no-take zones and enforce rules limiting the use of gear that is destructive to important coral reef and mangrove habitats".
"This will help us achieve our goal of sustainable fishing for generations to come, so we can both conserve our incredible fish life and allow people to have a stable livelihood and food source", he added.
The release stressed that the passage of the new legislation "is no small feat and has taken years of scientific research and lobbying by NGOs and institutions, including MMF, to highlight the importance of establishing protections for the threatened marine species in the region. We are grateful that the government has responded to the data and recommendations of scientists which has led to the formation of these new regulations".
MMF has been researching whale sharks (the largest species of fish on the planet) and mobula rays in Mozambique for almost 20 years.
"The largest identified populations of both reef and giant manta rays in Africa have been identified off the southern Mozambican coastline, making it a critical region for their conservation in the Western Indian Ocean," according to MMF Principal Scientist, Dr. Andrea Marshall.
MMF adds that its research into "the importance of the whale shark habitat in the area and i<https://peerj.com/articles/4161/>ncreasing human pressures, such as accidental catch in gillnets, which has halved their global population since the 1980s, helped to justify their inclusion in this new law".
"The Mozambican coast is an internationally important habitat for whale sharks", said another MMF scientist, Simon Piercet. "Protection in Mozambican waters provides a safeguard for the species locally, where whale sharks are the basis for sustainable marine ecotourism, but will also help these gentle giants to recover in the broader Indian Ocean".
But these large fish species are in deep trouble. The release notes that "Some of the most crucial and troubling data captured by MMF shows dramatic declines in observational sightings of marine megafauna like manta, mobula rays, and whale sharks. In 2013 we reported a 79% decline in whale shark sightings and an 88% decline in reef manta sighting<https://www.int-res.com/abstracts/meps/v482/p153-168/>s, and sadly these trends continue. Our data now show declines of over 90% for giant mantas, reef mantas, and shortfin devil rays<https://peerj.com/preprints/3051/> in the south of the country".
"Evidence of these stark declines, which have been attributed in large part to localized fishing pressure, are a testament to the urgency of these protections which go into effect today," said Andrea Marshall.
"Healthy populations of megafauna are crucial for maintaining healthy oceans", MMF adds. "Manta rays and whale sharks are listed as vulnerable or endangered on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List<https://www.iucnredlist.org/> with declining populations worldwide. Local conservation measures, like this law, are vital for the overall persistence of these species".
"Every organism plays an important role in an ecosystem", MMF says, "but ocean giants often play vital roles in maintaining balance and regulating resources in their environments. This in turn, naturally keeps fish populations healthy and improves the viability of fishing industries into the future".
Among the regulations introduced in the new legislation is a ban on de-finning sharks - the abominable practice of catching sharks, cutting off their fins (for the Chinese market), and throwing the dying animals back into the sea is outlawed. Fisherman must now land the full body of any sharks caught, with fins attached.
Commercial fishermen must now throw the by-catch, still alive, back into the sea. Fishing practices that damage coral reefs, mangroves or sea-grass meadows are banned, and there is a ban on the harvesting of live coral.
Sea turtles are also protected, in that all industrial and semi-industrial fishing nets must carry turtle excluder devices.
Welcome though the new legislation is, MMF wants the Mozambican authorities to go further and extend protection to other rare and endangered species, such as hammerhead sharks and leopard sharks.