JAKARTA - Indonesia has declared a vast sanctuary for sharks, turtles and manta rays in a region known as one of the world's richest sources of marine biodiversity, officials and conservationists said Tuesday.
The sanctuary covers 46,000 square kilometers (17,760 square miles) of waters around the Raja Ampat islands in eastern Indonesia, part of the so-called Coral Triangle region of Southeast Asia.
Sharks, manta rays, mobulas, dugongs and turtles are fully protected within the sanctuary, and destructive practices including reef bombing and the aquarium fish trade are banned, local officials said.
"Sharks, as apex predators, play a vital role in regulating the health of important commercial fish species, population balance, and coral reefs," conservation group Shark Savers and the Misool Eco Resort, which are supporting the sanctuary, said in a statement.
"Despite this importance, up to 73 million sharks are killed annually with some shark populations declining by as much as 90 percent, mostly for shark fin soup.
"In Raja Ampat, three fourths of its shark species are threatened with local extinction."
Peter Knights, executive director of US-based conservation group WildAid which is backing the project, said: "It's tragic that so much of Raja Ampat's biological treasure is destined for consumers who are unaware of the impact.
"Sharks are being killed for their fins, mantas are being killed for their gills, and rare reef fish are being caught for aquariums," he said.
Raja Ampat marine and fishery office head Yohanis Bercmans Rahawaryn could not provide figures on shark numbers in the area, but said their numbers had "dropped steadily in the past few years".
"Divers rarely find big sharks around Raja Ampat. That's the main indicator," he said.
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