Coral Scientists Kick Off Reef Assessment Trip in Indonesia

Today’s guest blog from WWF scientist Helen Fox is the first in a series chronicling a joint coral reef health monitoring trip in Raja Ampat, Indonesia with CI, The Nature Conservancy and WWF. This blog is cross-posted on the Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog.

Pristine reef of staghorn coral with juvenile batfish in Wayag Lagoon in Indonesia's Raja Ampat archipelago.

Pristine reef of staghorn coral with juvenile batfish in Wayag Lagoon in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago. (© CI/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)

My gear is packed and I am ready for my trip to the islands of Raja Ampat, a marine oasis off the tip of the Bird’s Head Peninsula of West Papua, Indonesia. I am joining fellow scientists on a trip to assess coral reef health surrounding the islands. For two weeks we will live aboard the vessel Puti Raja, collecting information on the marine life below.

Raja Ampat lies within the Coral Triangle, a 6 million square-kilometer (2.3 million square-mile) ocean expanse covering the seas of six countries in Asia and the Pacific. The waters surrounding the islands boast incredible biodiversity: over a thousand different species of reef fish, hundreds of corals, sharks, manta rays — a “species factory” for marine life. In 2007, the local government created a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) that protects nearly 50% of the area’s coral reefs and mangroves.

I am part of a joint initiative of Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and WWF to assess the current state of coral reefs in sites outside the region’s MPAs. We have a lot of information on reefs within MPAs; however we need information from areas outside MPAs for comparison’s sake. This will enable us to understand how effective MPAs are in protecting biodiversity and contributing to fisheries management. This expedition will also link to innovative social research that is being done to document the impacts of marine protected areas establishment on local communities.

CI's Mark Erdmann, left, and TNC's Sangeeta Mangubhai prepare for the expedition by mapping its route.

CI’s Mark Erdmann, left, and TNC’s Sangeeta Mangubhai prepare for the expedition by mapping its route. (© Sally Kailola/TNC)

MPAs are an important conservation and fisheries management strategy in the Coral Triangle (and worldwide) because they can:

  • protect habitats such as coral reefs from destructive fishing practices;
  • allow stressed reefs to recover from climate change impacts, such as bleaching;
  • enhance recovery of depleted fish populations and provide refuge for endangered species such as marine turtles; and
  • provide food security for people who rely on the ocean for their daily sustenance and livelihoods.

More than 85% of reefs within the Coral Triangle region are currently threatened by local stressors, which is substantially higher than the global average of 60%. The most widespread local threat is overfishing, including destructive fishing. Shark populations in Raja Ampat have seen dramatic decline due to finning practices. (Learn more about this trip in the video below.)

WWF, TNC, CI and government partners are working to create a network of MPAs in the Coral Triangle. We are studying the impacts of protected areas on local communities as well as the reef itself, working to ensure MPAs are designed and managed well, and monitoring the impacts of reserves to find solutions that benefit both people and nature.

During this trip, we will monitor Raja Ampat’s fish spawning areas and the health of its coral reefs. We will also be testing out other possible monitoring methods, including taking video for automated processing afterwards and using cell phones to collect information underwater. Be sure to check back for the latest news from this underwater journey!

Helen Fox is a marine conservation biologist for WWF.

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