Wednesday 20 October 2010 09.55 BST
The low-lying islands of the Maldives - the wildlife of its Hanifaru marine protected area, where giant manta rays can be found, are suffering from a tourism boom, claim conservationists. Photograph: Rex Features
Despite its recent status as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), a popular tourist destination in the Maldives is facing a massive decline in wildlife and tourism unless proper management is put in place.
Since being awarded MPA status in 2009 and receiving increased media interest, Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll has seen its tourism trade triple.
But Guy Stevens, director of the Maldives Manta Ray Project, warns that without proper management this 'cannot go on', and suggests that in just 'five years we will see a massive decline in the number of animals that will come to Hanifaru'.
Stevens says the area is 'failing as a Marine Protected Area', with no management or enforcing of regulations; he says it hasn't been a priority for the Maldives government and is just a 'paper park'. He adds that pressure is now on the authorities to 'sort it out' before the start of the next manta ray season.
Although the main area is only the size of a football pitch, Hanifaru is a world-famous feeding site for up to 250 manta rays, which have an average wingspan of 3m.
Stevens explains the problem is the 'sheer volume of people in the water' - he has seen as many as 13 boats and almost 200 people there at one time, inhibiting the animals' ability to feed: 'They just physically cannot swim through the water to feed on the plankton… The contact from people, touching, bumping into the animals disturbs their feeding behaviour.'
Safety is also a big problem: 'We've had animals hit by propellers, it's just a matter of time before someone's going to get chopped up by a propeller… boats hitting other boats, people being hit by boats, it's just a recipe for disaster.'
Hanifaru is also home to whale sharks. Stevens warns that both species are likely to 'start searching food from other areas'.
Rupert Ormond, chief scientist at SaveOurSeas Foundation, says the tourism generated by the animals is a double-edged sword.
'It can provide economic justification for the protection of the species, but unless tourist numbers and behaviour are controlled, not only will it degrade visitor experience, but the feeding behaviour of the animals will be disrupted and they will move elsewhere, or even show an overall decline in population size.'
While regulations do exist it appears they are not managed, allowing the number of unlicensed and unregulated 'safari' boats coming into the bay to increase fourfold since 2009. Guy Stevens has seen many of these boats, which can bring up to 30 people from neighbouring resorts or the mainland. He says they are being driven too fast and manoeuvred in and around and on top of the animals.
Stevens insists a management strategy that can enforce the regulations is urgently needed to stop Hanifaru becoming degraded by 'over-tourism'. Third-party management; penalties for those who break regulations; a ban on diving in the actual feeding site; a fee to enter the marine park, which can then be fed back into the local community, and a greater awareness of the guidelines and regulations are just some of the measures being put forward by him and his team in order to protect the animals and create a sustainable tourism industry.
'But unless you have a government stamp and approval of the way the site is legally managed, none of this will ever happen,' he says.
Rupert Ormond agrees: 'It is vital that the authorities discipline any less responsible operators who neglect or refuse to respect manta-watching guidelines.' A spokesperson for the Maldives ministry of environment admitted that there were management issues and lack of adherence to regulation by users. However he said there were 'clear-cut guideline on how to use the site and number of people number of boats, speed limits and vessel size'.