Indonesia instituted the world's biggest manta ray sanctuary on Friday, promising full protection in waters surrounding the archipelago nation and also banning exports of the winged creatures.
For years, Indonesia had been the world's largest ray and shark fishery, partly due to demand from China for manta gills for use in traditional medicine.
Many of Indonesia's foreign visitors dive to view the creatures. The group Conservation International said the "bold" move has backed by recent research findings that such ecotourism generates revenues worth millions.
Indonesia's new legislation protects manta rays within a 5.8 million square kilometer (2.2 million square miles) ocean zone.
Manta rays have wingspans of up to 7.5 meters (25 feet) and used their flaps to propel themselves gracefully through the water. They have the largest brain to body ratio of any fish and show little fear of humans.
"Given the huge area of reefs and island of our country, if managed properly, Indonesia could become the top manta tourism destination on the planet," said Agus Dermawan of Indonesia's marine affairs ministry.
The leader of the Indonesian Manta Ray Project, Sarah Lewis, said the "forward- thinking" move will safeguard the vulnerable species and provide economic benefits for local communities for "generations to come."
Key populations are located near the resort island of Bali, Flores island in eastern Indonesia and Raja Ampat off the northwest tip of New Guinea island.
Manta rays thrive over coral reefs on their abundance of tiny sea animals.
ipj/hc (dpa, AFP)