JAKARTA - Indonesia on Friday instituted the world's biggest manta ray sanctuary covering millions of square kilometres as it seeks to protect the huge winged fish and draw more tourists to the sprawling archipelago.
New legislation gives full protection to the creatures across all the waters surrounding Southeast Asia's biggest country, which for years has been the world's largest ray and shark fishery.
Protection group Conservation International hailed the "bold" move and said it was influenced by a recent government-backed review that showed a single manta ray was worth one million dollars in tourism revenue over its lifetime.
This compares to between $40 and $500 if caught and killed, the group said.
Many foreign tourists come to Indonesia every year to dive in some of the world's most biodiverse waters and manta rays are a favourite sight.
The gentle beasts have wingspans up to 25 feet (7.5 metres), which they flap to propel themselves gracefully through the water.
"Indonesia now has the second-largest manta ray tourism industry in the world, with an estimated annual turnover of $15 million," said Agus Dermawan, a senior official from the ministry of marine affairs and fisheries.
"Given the huge area of reefs and islands in our country, if managed properly, Indonesia could become the top manta tourism destination on the planet."