Indonesia on Friday became home to the world'sbiggest 'manta ray' sanctuary covering millions of square kilometres, as it seeks to protectthe huge winged fish and draw more tourists to the sprawling archipelago.
New legislationgives full protection to the creatures across all the waters surrounding Southeast Asia'sbiggest country, which for years has been the world's largest shark and ray fishery.
Protection group Conservation International hailed the "bold" move and said it was influencedby a recent government-backed review that showed a single manta ray was worth one milliondollars in tourism revenue over its lifetime.
This compares to between $40 and $500 if caughtand killed, the group said.
Many foreign tourists come to Indonesia every year to dive in someof the world's most biodiverse waters and manta rays are a favourite sight.
The gentlebeasts have wingspans up to 25 feet (7.
5 metres), which they flap to propel themselves gracefullythrough the water.
"Indonesia now has the second-largest manta ray tourism industryin the world, with an estimated annual turnover of $15 million," said Agus Dermawan, a seniorofficial from the ministry of marine affairs and fisheries.
"Given the huge area of reefsand islands in our country, if managed properly, Indonesia could become the top manta tourismdestination on the planet.
" Indonesia is one of the few places in the world where touristscan easily see both species of manta rays, the oceanic and reef varieties.
The new legislationprotects both.
Taking tourists out to view rays and other creatures provides livelihoodsfor many people working in popular dive spots across Indonesia, such as Raja Ampat off thenorthwest tip of New Guinea island and around the resort island of Bali.
In recent yearstheir numbers of rays have declined rapidly, however, due to voracious demand in Chinafor their body parts for use in traditional medicine.
The new legislation protects mantarays within Indonesia's 5.
8 million square kilometres (2.
2 million square miles) of ocean,banning fishing of the rays and their export.
It came a year after the local governmentin Raja Ampat announced the creation of a 46,000-square-kilometre shark and ray sanctuary.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies both species of manta rayas vulnerable.