CI recently supported a joint National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)/Coral Triangle Support Partnership fish biomass survey along the northern coast of Timor-Leste. Working with the government and communities, the team aims to develop understanding of the local ecology. The results will provide valuable information about the numbers and size of nearshore fish stocks, vital to improve sustainable fisheries management in the region.
Fishing plays an important role on Atauru, a small island off the coast of Dili which is home to 8,000 people. Thanks to CI’s marine Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) survey in 2012, we know that Atauro has one of the highest levels of marine biodiversity throughout Timor-Leste, including several species thought to be new to science.
Managing an area with such high endemic diversity has plenty of challenges. There is a range of languages spoken on the island, which can make managing fisheries difficult. There are also many fishing sites and only three fisheries officers, responsible for covering 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) of marine area.
The research currently being done will help inform the community about the quantity of fish that exist within Atauru fishing boundaries. To do this, NOAA is collecting information about habitats, which species are found there and their sizes. We are also collecting water samples to better understand ocean changes and acidification.
Needless to say, all the people we have met during our work here truly appreciate our support toward improved understanding and management of fisheries, as this natural resource is essential to local livelihoods. Fishing is the main source of income on the island.
On our first day we met José Guerreiro, one of the three fisheries officers on Atauru. Together we discussed our plans and explained the scientific process and techniques involved in the fish survey. We brought along posters showing small invertebrates and their importance to the health of the reef. These visuals made it easier to explain the Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) that were installed on the reef last year by NOAA.
In 2015, these ARMS will be brought onto land, and the data they’ve collected will help inform scientists and the local community about the health of the reef and help make sense of how our ocean is changing.
José was enthusiastic about our work and impressed with the resources we supplied to improve understanding among civil servants of the importance of sustainable resource management. We agreed that this survey is essential to learn what species are present here, so we can map out how to best manage these natural resources to ensure they endure for many years to come.
“We are now spending more and more time fishing, and catching less and less,” José said. “We need to explore other ways of making a living — perhaps tourism. But we [fishermen] need to be able to cater for the tourist’s needs; this is something we cannot do right now.”
Atauru’s coral reef system is under threat from both unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices. Use of fish poisons such as the derris plant — whose roots contain chemicals that stun the fish — in time ends up killing the reef. Guerreiro agreed that this work is very important and remarked on how delicate the marine ecosystem is: “Everything works together. The little critter on the reef, often unnoticed by many, is very important to ensure that corals flourish.”
The next day, the fish team began surveying the northeast section of the island. Meanwhile, as part of our community engagement program I met with the sub-district administrator’s secretary to discuss the research and the future benefits it will bring to the community.
“Knowledgeable people come in different forms, scientist and illiterates, but if they work together, we can better understand what is happening to our reef,” he said.
“We need scientists to help us make sense of things. What we currently do may not be sustainable, so we need scientists to help us to see what … we need to stop doing, or do in a different way, to ensure that we can continue to get fish and that the ocean continues as bountiful as our grandfather told us it was generations ago.”
Rui Pinto is the policy manager for CI-Timor-Leste. The Coral Triangle Support Partnership is a collaboration between CI, WWF and The Nature Conservancy and the six national governments of the Coral Triangle. This is the first half of a two-part blog; read part two.