May 11, 2009

Saving The Coral Triangle

There is a swirling fight to save the Indonesian island of Nusa Lembongan because of its valuable wildlife resources.

It appears to be the edge of a great wilderness, but according to scientists, this small and scrubby island off Bali is one corner of a huge marine ecosystem described as the most diverse on earth.
The area known as the Coral Triangle is a key environmental battleground for a planet grappling with climate change.

The triangle stretches across six nations between the Indian and Pacific oceans including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

It is only roughly half the size of the continental United States, but it is home to more than half of the world's coral reefs, three-quarters of its coral species and key stocks of fish that help feed the world.

"People have compared the Coral Triangle's biodiversity richness to the Amazon," said Abdul Halim, the head of The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) Coral Triangle Center.

And just like the Amazon, the area's huge biodiversity is matched by a huge set of challenges.

The region's resources are being depleted by overfishing, climate change, and impoverished communities.

During the World Ocean Conference, the Coral Triangle is being touted as a key target in efforts to conserve the health of the oceans, to both battle climate change and adapt to its consequences.

A meeting of leaders from the six nations of the Coral Triangle Initiative is set to launch a plan to save the region. The group has already pledged hundreds of millions of dollars by international donors.

The major players involved in conserving the region say it will be a long, hard fight.

Scientists say the island of Nusa Lembongan has withstood the pressures of human misuse and nature better than most, and that is precisely what makes it so important.

"It has the highest diversity anywhere on the planet, if you talk about marine life," said Lida Pet Soede, the head of environmental group WWF's Coral Triangle Initiative Network.

"It has the most species of corals, the most species of fish, every other marine organism.... All sorts of stuff, it has the most of it," she said.

Soede noted that the Coral Triangle's variety of species means life here has an in-built coping mechanism to deal with outside stresses. She said it serves as the "nursery of the seas" for species facing collapse elsewhere.

About 30 percent of the world's tuna is caught here and populations are relatively healthy but by no means beyond threat. The area has also proved resistant to climate change, due to a constant welling of water between the Pacific and Indian oceans that keeps temperatures relatively stable.

Some scientists are worried that as temperatures rise and the ocean changes, fishing fleets will move to more remote spots and therefore put more stress on the Coral Triangle. 

"As reserves everywhere else are going down the pressure is on, everyone is going to want to come here," she said.

"It's very likely that this will be one of the last areas where you still have significant production of seafood, but this area will not be able to feed the world.

"It's not just about fish and food but the very fact of certain species that we don't even know exist... that may be the cure for HIV.

"If that particular organism or particular ecosystem is gone before we figure it out, it's a big loss.

Spread out on thousands of islands across porous national borders, 120 million people live in impoverished communities. They have turned to poisoning fish with cyanide or blowing them up with dynamite, said Marthen Welly, who runs a TNC program at Nusa Lembongan and its neighboring islands.

"Middlemen tie up the fishermen with debt for life. The fishermen have to pay back their debts by selling fish every day, but it's the middlemen who set the price and they set it as low as possible," he said.

"Sometimes fishermen know that using bombs and cyanide breaks the law and wrecks the reefs, but they're also squeezed."

Non-governmental organizations and governments have tried to introduce alternative livelihoods and get communities on board in protecting the environment through so-called Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

If everything work out, Nusa Lembongan will soon be covered by one of the MPAs, which already covers 24,750 acres in Indonesia.

Tourist dollars and the introduction of seaweed farming in the 1980s have brought some local farmers and fishermen out of desperate poverty, and put conservation on the agenda.

"Before there was seaweed we could count with our hands who could eat. They were the ones with big plots of land that could plant trees, corn, coconuts," said 37-year-old seaweed farmer Wayan Suwarbawa, who is working with the TNC.

"Even though we're just farmers, we're obliged to spread the importance of preserving sea ecosystems," he said.

Still Soede says the root of the problem remains with climate change and a growing global population hungry for fish.

"If you don't take away the drivers like unsustainable consumption patterns or other influences then your conservation dollar on the ground is not going to be very effective. It's pretty much a waste," she said.


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