BEFORE: A Pinnate batfish swimming among other fish in Tatawa Besar in the waters of Komodo islands, Indonesia. AFTER: damaged coral reefs in the water of Tatawa Besar, Komodo islands, Indonesia. [Robert Delfs/Michael W. Ishak]
I admire corals – not only for their beauty, diversity, and the communities they harbour, but also for their fortitude. Notwithstanding our (justified) concern over the future of coral reefs today, they are extremely ancient critters and have survived for hundreds of millions of years through thick and thin. And when you consider the number of mass extinctions that have occurred in our planet’s turbulent history, those are extreme thicks and very thins.
Let’s face it, corals represent yet another example of things about which what we do know is but a fraction of what we don’t – see, for example, recent revelations on their survival skills. It’s only a few months since I had the pleasure of visiting parts of eastern Indonesia and, amongst the many memories, snorkelling around the glorious coral reefs of the Komodo Islands ranks right up there:
Fishermen Blast Premier Dive Sites Off Indonesia
Jacob Herin | April 20, 2012
Komodo Island, Indonesia. Coral gardens that were among Asia’s most spectacular, teeming with colorful sea life just a few months ago, have been transformed into desolate gray moonscapes by fishermen who use explosives or cyanide to kill or stun their prey. Dive operators and conservationists say the government is not doing enough to protect waters off the Komodo Islands in eastern Indonesia. They say enforcement declined greatly following the exit of a US-based conservation group that helped fight destructive fishing practices. Local officials disagree, pointing to dozens of arrests and several deadly gunbattles with suspects.
Michael Ishak, a scuba instructor and professional underwater photographer who has made hundreds of trips to the area, said he’s seen more illegal fishermen than ever this year. The pictures, he said, speak for themselves.
When Ishak returned last month to one of his favorite spots, Tatawa Besar, known for its colorful clouds of damselfish, basslets and hawksbill sea turtles, he found that a 200-square-meter reef had been obliterated. “At first I thought, ‘This can’t be right. I must have jumped in the wrong place,’” he said, adding he swam back and forth to make sure he hadn’t made a mistake. “But it was true. All the hard coral had just been blasted, ripped off, turned upside down. Some of it was still alive. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The site is among several to have been hit inside Komodo National Park, a 500,000-acre reserve and U.N. World Heritage Site that spans several dusty, tan-colored volcanic islands and is most famous for its Komodo dragons — the world’s largest lizards. Its remote and hard-to-reach waters, bursting with fluorescent reds and yellows, contain staggering levels of diversity, from iridescent corals and octopuses with lime-green banded eyes to black-and-blue sea snakes.
They are supposed to be protected, but fishermen are drawn there by locally popular fish like fusiliers and high-value export species like groupers and snappers. Fishermen can be seen in small wooden boats, some using traditional nets or lines. Others have been captured on video blasting sites with “bombs” — fertilizer and kerosene mixed in beer bottles. Breathing through tubes connected to air compressors at the surface, young men plunge to the bottom and use squeeze bottles to squirt cyanide into the coral to stun and capture fish. Dive operators are increasingly seeing dead fish on the sea floor or floating on the surface.
“The biggest problem is that fishermen seem to be free to come into Komodo, completely ignoring the zoning and resource use regulations,” said Jos Pet, a fisheries scientist who has worked with numerous marine conservation groups in the area in recent years. He said they are “quite simply fishing empty this World Heritage Site.”
Sustyo Iriyono, the head of the park, said problems are being exaggerated and denied claims of lax enforcement. “It’s only part of the black campaigns against us by those who are hurt by our rules and orders,” he said without elaborating. He said rangers have arrested more than 60 fishermen over the past two years, including a group of young men captured last month after they were seen bombing waters off Banda island in the western part of the park. One of the suspects was shot and killed after the fishermen tried to escape by throwing fish bombs at the rangers, Iriyono said. Three others, including a 13-year-old, were slightly injured.
“You see?” said Iriyono. “No one can say I’m not acting firmly against those who are destroying the dive spots!”
He added that the park is one of the few places where fish bombing is monitored with any regularity in Indonesia, a Southeast Asian nation of more than 17,000 islands.
Divers, however, say enforcement has dropped dramatically since 2010, when the government reclaimed sole control of operations. For two decades before that, The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based nonprofit, had helped the government confront destructive fishing practices there. “No-take zones” were created, protecting spawning areas, and coastal areas also were put off limits. Patrols using park rangers, navy personnel and local police were key to enforcement.
In 2005, the government gave a 30-year permit to Putri Naga Komodo, a nonprofit joint venture company partially funded by The Nature Conservancy and the World Bank to operate tourist facilities in hopes of eventually making the park financially self-sustaining. Entrance and conservation fees — just a few dollars at the time — went up several tenfold for foreign tourists. With around 30,000 local and international visitors annually at the time, that would have given the park a budget of well over $1 million, but outraged government officials demanded that the funds go directly into the state budget. The deal collapsed in 2010, when Putri Naga Komodo’s permit was yanked. “They had no right to directly collect the entrance fees from the tourists,” said Novianto Bambang, a Forestry Ministry official.
Dive operators and underwater photographers have asked The Nature Conservancy and similar organizations like WWF Indonesia, to return to Komodo and help with conservation efforts there. Nature Conservancy representative Arwandridja Rukma did not address that possibility, saying only that the organization operates in Indonesia upon the invitation of the government.
Yes, this is horrifying: blowing up coral reefs or injecting them with cyanide is utter lunacy. But, as always, it’s not a simple issue. Unregulated and chaotic fishing have depleted natural stocks, and, regardless of what proportion of explosive mayhem is perpetrated by outsiders as opposed to locals, the fact is that the inhabitants of the Komodo islands, if not actually poverty-stricken, live very lean lives. These are some of our photos from the town of Komodo, the largest concentration of the population. These people have to live, and fishing is their main – virtually only – means of doing so. These kids deserve food, an education, a life.
After I read this piece, by yet another twist of serendipity, I received an email from Richard Bready. Richard is a frequent commenter on this blog, always adding a fascinating, and often provocative, dimension to the posts - and he is, so far, my only guest poet. It seems that, from the post on the European sand belt, he had been following a trail of links on the subject of geoconservation, and come across the site of Ashoka Changemakers – whose purpose is to create “opportunities for organizations, corporations, and individuals to drive meaningful and measurable social change.” They are supported by, amongst others, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Never having come across this initiative, I followed up, specifically, as Richard directed me, on their coastal program, and their “Geotourism Challenge 2010: Places on the Edge - Saving Coastal and Freshwater Destinations.” Now this competition has been supported by the National Geographic, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the latter’s Multilateral Investment Fund, and there is an understandable focus on Central America. But what fascinated me – and is of great relevance to the topic of this post – were two of the three winning initiatives:
1. Coral Gardens - Living Reefs
Reefs provide food and income for coastal communities and are a foundation of tourism, producing white sandy beaches and protecting shorelines. My idea has been to actively involve communities and the tourism industry in planting and caring for corals, with the dive industry trained to care for dive sites, and with resorts taking on trained "coral gardeners". Guests can also become involved and learn about reefs while they help plant corals and garden the reefs, giving something back to the destination and to the planet.
Go to the full description to read the details – this arises directly from the passion of an individual.
Then, there was this winner – deeply relevant to Komodo, and again the idea of an innovative individual:
2. Development of economic partnerships between artisanal fisher folk and tourism operators
Project will create economic partnerships/opportunities between artisanal fisher folk and the tourism sector by constructing a locally-supported fisheries co-op for certified, sustainably caught products and direct marketing strategy with local hotels/restaurants. Project will construct a marine research center that contributes to responsible tourism development/heritage protection by promoting local SMEs.
It struck me that these projects address exactly the issues that the reefs and the inhabitants of the Komodo Islands are facing – and that support for them by Ashoka Changemakers is admirable. The concept of translating these ideas into an Indonesian context is, as the article above so depressingly shows, a huge challenge. But Komodo is a National Park, and has been a World Heritage Site since 1991. If anywhere fits the definition of an “ecotourism destination,” and a prime candidate for geoconservation and biodiversity preservation, Komodo is it. But people live there and must be active participants in - and beneficiaries of - any progress. It may be difficult, but we can’t accept that it’s impossible, and surely somewhere there are people with the vision, the passion, and the expertise to make something like the initiatives described above actually work in Komodo. Please.