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Mary O'Malley Fights to Save Sharks and Manta Rays from Extinction


By Scuba Diving Partner | Updated On November 2, 2023
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Mary O'Malley Fights to Save Sharks and Manta Rays from Extinction

sea hero

May 2014 Sea Hero Mary O'Malley pictured diving with a tiger shark in the Bahamas.

Robert Dion

A bevy of A-list orgs has benefited from the energy of Mary 
O’Malley, who recently helped 
to win unprecedented protections for mantas in Indonesia, previously the world’s largest manta fishery. For her dedication, O’Malley is our May 2014 Sea Hero.

You’ve devoted your efforts to mantas the past few years.

Over the past three years, I’ve been focused mainly on manta ray conservation, through Manta Ray of Hope, a comprehensive manta and mobula ray conservation program, which WildAid, Shark Savers (now merged) and The Manta Trustare working on in collaboration. We worked closely with numerous groups and individuals, especially the Pew team and Species Survival Network coalition and reps from sponsor countries, to support the recent CITES Appendix II listing for manta rays and several shark species. We then shifted efforts manta protection in Indonesia, working with a team led by Mark Erdmann from Conservation International. Now the country that had the world's largest manta-ray fishery has passed a law to fully protect manta rays throughout its enormous EEZ of approximately 6 million square kilometers. Meanwhile, we’ve started to lay the groundwork for a campaign in China to address demand for manta and mobula gill plates, which is the biggest driver of directed fisheries for these rays. In addition, I contribute to various shark conservation efforts, usually by doing research, pulling together supporting facts and figures and helping to connect individuals and groups, who have the expertise the project needs to be successful.

sea hero

Mary O'Malley, the May 2014 Sea Hero, recently won unprecedented protection for mantas in Indonesia.

Mary O'Malley

What was your 
biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge I find is staying focused when there are so many serious issues facing the oceans and marine life. Unfortunately, though, I’ve learned that if you try to work on too many issues at once, you can wind up not accomplishing very much. In order to make a substantial difference in conservation, I think it’s very important to focus on a limited number of issues, set specific goals, and keep working to reach them.

Is there hope for rays
 and sharks?

Yes, I believe there is reason to be hopeful for sharks. Because the demand for shark-fin soup and other shark-fin dishes is widely acknowledged to be the most important driver of shark fisheries, the recent evidence of declining demand for shark fins in Asia is very encouraging news for sharks. A survey conducted by WildAid researchers in Guangzhou, China — the center of the shark-fin trade — revealed that major traders are pessimistic about the future of the shark fin trade as it is no longer profitable (declines in fin prices of 60 percent to 70 percent have be reported by some of the top traders in China). And we’ve also heard reports from shark fishing countries of fishermen shifting away from sharks because of the sharp decline in shark-fin prices.

What achievement are you most proud of?

I'm proud of our team's critical contributions to the recent protections for manta rays through CITES and the national protection in Indonesia. Personally, co-authoring a peer-reviewed paper on the economic impact of manta ray tourism was the most challenging project I’ve been involved with, but definitely worth all the tedious work, since this research is already playing a key role helping policy makers to understand that protecting mantas is not just important environmentally, but it is in their economic interest as well.

Who are your Sea Heroes?

There’s such a long list of people who I consider to be my Sea Heroes that it’s hard to list them all. A few who have inspired me, mentored me and/or given me opportunities to contribute along the way are: Shawn Heinrichs, Paul Hilton, Guy Stevens and the rest of the Manta Ray of Hope team; Jonn Lu and the tireless Shark Savers teams in Asia; the Pew CITES team led by Sue Lieberman; Peter Knights of WildAid; Mark Erdmann of Conservation International; Valerie Taylor; Stefanie Brendl; Senator Clayton Hee; Andy and Marit Miners; Samantha Whitcraft; Sue Chen; Gary and Brenda Adkison; Mike Neumann;and many more.

How can divers help?

Dive with operators who make sharks and mantas valuable alive through responsible shark and manta ecotourism, and make an effort to find out which dive operators are actively involved in conservation projects and book your trips with them. When you dive with sharks or mantas, take the time to log your shark and manta sightings, and submit ID photos for whale sharks and manta rays. These photo-ID databases help researchers to understand the migrations of these highly migratory animals and identify priority areas for protection.

Support the work of organizations like WildAid/Shark Savers, The Manta Trust, Misool Baseftin Foundation Raja Ampat, Indonesia, Planeta Oceano (Peru), and others who are struggling to make big impacts with limited budgets.

What's next for Mary O'Malley?

This year will continue to be primarily focused on manta and mobula conservation, including the gill-plate-demand campaign in China, continuing to work on regional and national protections for manta and mobula rays, and assisting local programs for community education and enforcement to help ensure that protection laws are effective. There are also some exciting plans shaping up for shark conservation, which I hope to be able to contribute to.

Is there anything you wish we had asked that we did not? If so tell us what's on Mary O'Malley's mind!

I’d just like to stress how important it is for individuals and different conservation groups to work together to make big conservation impacts. The Indonesian manta law is a great example of several groups that were able to team up to bring together expertise in science, policy, international media campaigns and local social networking, to make a compelling case for protecting mantas in the country with the largest manta ray fishery in the world.

Read About Mary O'Malley's Contributions to Shark Savers.

More Sea Heroes:

Gwyn Mills | Troy Bodden | Jessica Cramp | Sea Hero Nominations