Indonesia has a lot to lose

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Despite the fact that Indonesia is a part of the Coral Triangle Initiative — an initiative to safeguard the home to more than 75 percent of the world’s coral species and more than 37 percent of coral reef fish, spanning from Malaysia to Solomon Islands — 90 percent of the country’s coral reefs remain under threat by over-fishing and disruptive fishing. Rod Salm, the senior advisor at the marine program of the Indo-Pacific Division at the Nature Conservancy, who has been diving in the country’s most exotic diving destinations since 1973, talked to The Jakarta Post’s Nadya Natahadibrata about the importance of preserving coral reefs. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Question: What do you think is the biggest change in Indonesia’s marine conservation compared to the first time you visited the country?

Answer: In the early days through the 1980s, my counterparts couldn’t snorkel or scuba dive and they had degrees in something else. But now all of the people I work with have degrees and masters degrees in marine science and they’re qualified scuba divers. They are also very good field workers, I think that is the biggest change. In the early days, the sea was an unknown place and there was no excitement about doing marine expeditions.

You have been developing research on reef resilience. Can you explain what reef resilience is?

Over the years, since the beginning of the industrial age, the seas of the world have been slowly getting warmer. The warming sea is stressing corals, corals live in warm waters anyway but they are already very close to the maximum heat they can tolerate. So, if you heat a little bit more, it stresses the coral that can result in the coral dying.

In 1998, there was a really serious heating event all around the world and it caused coral bleaching, so when the corals are stressed they lose their color, they go paler and then they die. There were places in Indonesia in 1998 where the coral had no stress at all. So there are areas with good water mixing, so you have strong currents that are bringing up cooler water from the bottom, so when the surface water heats up, it mixes with cooler water so those areas can survive, and the coral, they produce larvae which go to help the other areas to recover. So that is one example. And I think that Indonesia is very fortunate. In other parts of the world it doesn’t happen that way.

What is lost if Indonesian reefs are lost?

About 90 percent of Indonesian reefs are threatened by over fishing and disruptive fishing. And if you add climate change to that, what it does is it pushes that even higher and it means that about 20 percent of the reefs are at very high risk, and about 50 percent are high to very high risk, and high and medium risk is about 95 percent. That is a big amount of threat to the coral reefs in Indonesia.

In 2010, an evaluation was done on the reefs of Indonesia and they found that the value of coral reefs in Indonesia to tourism is about US$137 million a year. For fisheries it is $1.5 billion a year, that’s coral reefs fisheries alone, and to coastal protection it’s about $387 million per year. If you take that together its 2 billion a year that Indonesia’s get from reefs.

The country has a lot to lose by losing its coral reefs. And what we forget too is that reefs provide more benefits. Coral reefs provide jobs to a lot of people and also provide different medicines. People in Indonesia are becoming more active, it’s a strong recreational value.

Do you think Indonesia has improved its protection for coral reefs over the past few years?

It has improved. There was nothing going on in 1973. It only started in the 1980s. Now there are allot of good things going on. It used to be top down by minister’s decree. Now it’s more about working with the communities and district level government. Everybody’s awareness to protect the environment has increased, But it doesn’t mean that all of the problems are solved. I don’t want to paint it with a white brush. There are still a lot of challenges.

What kind of challenges?

I think that there is a real problem with enforcement of regulation in some places. People are coming to protected areas illegally. And the enforcement is very expensive and is also not very effective in some areas.

Because they [the law enforcers] need to use speedboats and its very expensive to run those boats and these marine protected areas are very large and we could have somebody fishing and we didn’t know it. And fisherman has fast boat too so you have to get faster boats.

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