Renewed Hope for the Reefs of the Coral Triangle

Editor’s Note: Water Planet is an open forum for leading nonprofit marine conservation groups and advocates to sound off on environmental issues. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Divers Alert Network®.

In The Nature Conservancy’s Asia Pacific program, we used to joke that you could throw a dart at a map of the area east of Borneo and strike a coral-reef conservation priority. And there’s some truth to that. This particular section of the Western Pacific — called the Coral Triangle — comprises a collection of reefs that are simultaneously the most biodiverse and, in some cases, the least protected in the world.

However, there’s a promising story currently playing out here. Recently, widespread initiatives have grown out of smaller, regional conservation efforts, putting the Coral Triangle firmly on the path to comprehensive conservation.

The story began eight years ago, when one of these high-priority regions — the Raja Ampat islands in northeastern Indonesia — started to catch the attention of marine scientists in Indonesia. At the time, the Raja Ampats were little more than a name on a map. But their location at a confluence of currents suggested that coral larvae from all over Southeast Asia and the Pacific would settle here and that those currents would cool the surface waters, protecting the Raja Ampats’ corals from rising ocean temperatures that had bleached reefs elsewhere.

To learn more, a team of marine scientists, from both Indonesia and abroad, set off on a 23-day expedition and as anticipated, the variety of coral and fish species was off the charts. But even more important, the reefs proved remarkably resilient to climate change, showing little, if any, evidence of the mass coral-bleaching event that devastated reefs around the world in 1998.

This was an excellent sign. With so many reefs in trouble, today’s coral-reef conservationists must focus their efforts on those with the greatest chance of survival — the ones that show resistance to mass bleaching and an ability to recover from both human impacts and natural stresses — and the Raja Ampats passed that test with flying colors.

Two white-striped fish with yellow lips

Jump-Starting Conservation

After the expedition, the research team presented its findings at a meeting of regional government officials and the Raja Ampats’ local community leaders. The message was clear: You live alongside a unique and significant treasure, and while these reefs provide local income and food security, they also need to be conserved as part of a global heritage — and it resonated.

Local governments, community partners and international conservation groups joined efforts, and soon the Raja Ampats’ communities committed to conserving around 25 percent of their marine waters. They also established two large marine protected areas at Kofiau and Southeast Misool and implemented entrance fees that help fund tourism development, conservation and community health projects.

Open-mouthed ornately decorated fish

Today the Raja Ampats are a conservation success story. The islands support more than 20 liveaboards, six land-based resorts and several community-owned home stays. Tourism nearly tripled between 2007 and 2008 with around 3,000 visitors, mostly divers, sustainably using the reefs. It’s a testament to the positive effects conservation can have in these areas, both to the health of the reefs and the lives of the people depending on them.

Taking Initiative

Like the Raja Ampats, the entire Coral Triangle region is ripe for this sort of preservation and positive tourism infrastructure development. In May 2009, building on the examples established in the Raja Ampats eight years earlier, the heads of state for all six Coral Triangle countries — Indonesia, Timor-Leste (East Timor), the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands — gathered at the World Ocean Conference in Manado, Indonesia, to launch the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI).

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia said the six governments achieved a new level of understanding in their talks, formally recognizing the Coral Triangle as the epicenter of marine-life diversity on the planet (defined by reef systems containing 500 or more coral species, the Coral Triangle sustains 76 percent of all known coral species, 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs and about 40 percent of all known coral-reef fish species).

School of black-and-white striped fish with yellow fins

Yudhoyono also announced a plan to designate 50 million acres of marine protected areas across Indonesia by 2010, including the establishment of the Savu Sea Marine National Park, which covers more than 8 million acres in the southern seas of Indonesia.

To accomplish this goal, the Indonesian government will double the national budget dedicated to CTI programs and will host and fund a permanent CTI secretariat to support the plan. These are big steps, and the other six Coral Triangle countries have responded in kind by rolling out their own pledges.
Lynne Hale, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Initiative, says, “It’s the greatest achievement in marine conservation that I’ve witnessed in more than 30 years of working in the field.”

This initiative shows how conservation efforts have grown from pinpricks on dart-scarred maps to commitments on a huge, relevant scale. That scale reflects the complex management approach necessary to sustain these irreplaceable coral reef systems and ensure they have a shot at entrancing new generations of divers.

Snorkeler uses magnifying glass to inspect a colony of starfish

Save Your Reef

Do you have a favorite coral reef system you’d like to help protect? There are things you can do, whether it’s close to home or halfway around the world:

  • Reduce your carbon footprint. Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases will contribute to slowing global warming and ocean acidification, both of which are the biggest threats coral reefs face today. We can also work with our legislators to catalyze and support policy and legislation that aim to curb excesses, to ameliorate climate change and to protect coral reefs.
  • Adopt a reef.
  • Be careful when visiting coral reefs and adjacent areas.
  • Get involved with coral-reef conservation and clean-up programs in the area you live, visit or simply wish to protect. Some organizations offer this option to travelers who want to volunteer as part of their dive adventure.

For More Information

The Nature Conservancy protects Earth’s most important natural places — for you and future generations — through sound science and a diversity of partnerships. The organization has protected more than 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers worldwide, and they operate marine conservation projects in all coastal U.S. states and 33 countries.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2010