Ask someone where Atauro Island is and you’ll probably be met with a blank stare. Yet this tiny island off the coast of one of the world’s newest nations may just be a world record breaker...
Last month, two highly experienced researchers – Jerry Allen and Mark Erdmann from Conservation International (CI) – led an expedition to Atauro, which lies around 25km off the coast of Dili, Timor Leste. Their goal was to measure the levels of biodiversity in 10 dive sites around the island. What they discovered suggests that Atauro may hold the greatest levels of reef fish biodiversity on the planet.
Erdmann, a Senior Adviser to CI, told The Guardian that three of the 10 sites had more than 300 species of fish – a remarkable number, even by the standards of the Coral Triangle bioregion, which is home to more marine species than anywhere else on the planet. “My senior colleague Gerry Allen and I have done well over 10,000 dives between the two of us in the Coral Triangle region, so we are certainly used to high-diversity sites,” Erdmann said. “But Atauro proved exceptionally rich.”
Only two other areas – the provinces of North Sulawesi and Raja Ampat, both in Indonesia – are thought to support similar numbers of species. Raja Ampat is widely acknowledged as the global epicentre of marine biodiversity, taking into account coral species as well as reef fish. Allen and Erdmann found an average of 253 reef fish per location, which shattered the previous record of 216, held by a reef in West Papua, Indonesia. What’s more, they suspect that many of the fish sighted are probably new to science.
Conservation International is now working with local government and other stakeholders to gain conservation status for Atauro Island with a view to developing a strong ecotourism industry there. In spite of the astonishing findings, Erdmann and Allen also encountered many reefs that showed significant damage from blast fishing, overfishing and crown of thorn outbreaks. Marine megafauna such as sharks and predator reef species like the iconic Napoleon Wrasse were also conspicuously absent – sure signs that Atauro’s reefs are under pressure. “Without question, our strong recommendation is that the whole of Atauro be designated a marine protected area, with active local management and enforcement,” Erdmann told the Guardian.
That doesn’t mean keeping humans out, however. Conservation International suggest a multi use approach, where artisanal fishers who’ve relied on these coral gardens for generations are still able to harvest reefs they themselves select, while preserving others to maintain the overall health of the ecosystem. At the same time, a well-managed ecotourism industry offers opportunities for green entrepreneurship, where local people benefit from keeping the coastal ecosystem healthy.
Atauro Island is proof once again of just how vital the Coral Triangle is not only regionally but to the world’s oceans as a whole, in the context of climate change and ocean acidification. We have so much to gain in protecting these marine jewels both through local action and by lobbying leaders to drastically reduce CO2 emissions before it is too late.
You can check out more of Don Silcock's amazing underwater images at www.indopacificimages.com
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