A new system is empowering locals to keep an eye out for their own coral reefs. It started in Raja Ampat, Indonesia and now it's spreading throughout the Coral Triangle...
In crystal blue water ten meters below the surface, Lius Kabes flashes a thumbs up, pulls out his clipboard and underwater paper, and fins off to count the schools of colorful fish ahead. Behind him, Misel Marine and Fredrik Sarwa carefully roll out 50 meters of measuring tape and mark off areas of the reef to assess reef habitat and any signs of coral bleaching. After only four days of training, there are new ‘eyes on the reef’ in the heart of coral reef biodiversity in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.
In February 2016, scientists from World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International and Universitas Papua developed a unique hands-on training in underwater science for local dive guides and students who live and work in the Raja Ampat Marine Protected Area Network. The goal was to empower local stakeholders with scientific knowledge and capacity to monitor their coral reefs.
Supported by the Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre, seven trainees – that included Lius, Misel and Fredrik – learned about reef ecology, threats to their reefs, and methods for scientific monitoring. On day one, some were painfully shy, desperately avoiding eye contact. With the encouragement and instruction by Indonesian scientists, they were soon confident experts underwater – recording fish species and sizes, coral assemblages and on the lookout for coral bleaching. Underwater science was as second nature as finding the nearest pygmy seahorse or showing us the local wobbeggong sharks.
Raja Ampat is one the of the last frontiers for the rich biodiversity of the Coral Triangle – the roughly triangular area of tropical marine waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. A global epicenter of marine biodiversity and a priority for conservation efforts, Raja Ampat has been the focus of conservation support from the Indonesian government, which has brought over 3.5 million hectares of the Bird’s Head Seascape under protection in a large network of MPAs. With a focus on science and evidence-based policy, bringing science to stakeholders can meet the challenge of providing information on the area’s extensive coral reefs.
With many reefs in near-pristine condition, the secret is out and the world has learned about the beauty of Raja Ampat. Increasing national and international tourism brings economic benefits but also more local pressures for the reefs, including pollution, coastal development and damage from tourists and boat anchors.
Spending nearly every day on the reef to guide tourists to abundant corals, sharks and schools of barracuda, local dive guides know first-hand the benefits of tourism, and also the need to protect their fragile coral reef ecosystems. Training dive guides to monitor the health of their reefs is an early warning system for signs of stress or overuse for scientists, managers and decision makers.
Professional dive guides Lius, Misel and Fredrick are now collecting scientific data that will contribute to national and international efforts. The information they collect will link into a larger monitoring program in the Bird’s Head Seascape where a partnership between NGOs and local universities are documenting the social and ecological impacts of Marine Protected Areas in a marine diversity hotspot. Across Indonesia, their surveys can link into national analyses to understand the status and trends of coral reefs in Indonesia to help inform policies and strategies for coral reef conservation.
Watching Lius, Misel and Fredrick swim towards the corals, pencils flashing with new information on reef health, brings a wave of optimism that their coral reefs will be here for future generations. Here in the Coral Triangle, science and collaboration are supporting conservation across cultures.
* Authors Dr. Gabby Ahmadia and Dr. Emily Darling are conservation scientists with the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society respectively. They coordinate large-scale monitoring programs to evaluate the impact of conservation investments on coral reefs around the world.
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