Nov 23, 2020 Last Updated 3:35 AM, Nov 18, 2020

Coral reef conservation and the communities leading the way

Published: Aug 14, 2020
Major policy shifts are needed to prevent the destruction of the reefs, but for now, coastal communities are having an impact and the reduction in tourism due to COVID-19 is offering some breathing space

Minka Curr

Coral reefs are a vital source of life for oceans and people. With coastal communities across the world dependent on incomes from fishing industries, millions of people relying on seafood for protein, and 25 per cent of all marine life calling reefs home, they are a vital resource for our world. The Coral Triangle region is the epicenter of reef biodiversity, with 76 percent of reef fish species found between the six Coral Triangle countries ­– Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste.

Bali, one of the most popular spots in the region, is usually bustling with tourists and operators offering them the opportunity to experience life underwater. As businesses across the region reel from the fallout of lockdown measures to control the spread of COVID-19, many are now wondering how, and when, the island will recover. Developed on the ever growing wave of international tourism, it is not yet known what the long term impact of the pandemic will be for Bali’s tourism sector.

But as humanity tackles this unprecedented global health crisis, coral reefs are still faced with catastrophe, as climate change continues to alter the nature of our oceans. As businesses look towards recovery from the COVID-19 shutdown, returning with conservation in mind could shift key industries towards sustainable practices. While a global shuffle in policy and priorities are required to prevent the destruction of the reefs, for now, the small-scale actions of coastal communities and individuals are already having an impact. Community groups across the small islands off the east coast of Bali are becoming involved in protecting, managing and rehabilitating coastal and marine ecosystems, helping to slow the effects of climate change and reverse destructive fishing practices.

A protected area

Under the management of the Bali Provincial Government, and with the long-term support of Bali-based marine conservation NGO, the Coral Triangle Center, the Nusa Penida Marine Protected Area (MPA) is setting the tone for a local movement of change makers who understand the urgency of protecting their marine and coastal ecosystems.

Brooke Pyke/CTC

The MPA encompasses the three islands of Nusa Penida, Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan, all of which fall within a zoning plan to regulate the use of the marine area. Some zones have been reserved for traditional livelihoods, such as fishing and seaweed farming, others for marine tourism. There is a ‘sacred zone’ which protects local customs and beliefs in the islands, and two ‘core zones’, restricted areas that protect key ecosystems and fish spawning grounds. But without strict enforcement of these zones, many believe the islands’ marine resources could be lost.

To support the MPA, local communities have started their own programs to educate local children and visitors to the islands on the importance of preserving coastal and marine ecosystems. One group, Satya Posana Nusa (SPN), is working to rehabilitate the mangrove forests on Nusa Lembongan, and teach the island’s children about living in harmony with the environment.

‘The MPA is very meaningful for our community, as [it] was established to manage the utilisation of the sea, and as a coastal community we rely on these marine resources’ said I Wayan Suarbawa, the head of SPN and a local seaweed farmer.

Wayan is also a member of the MPA management unit. The unit is made up of local residents, all of whom join patrols and surveys to support the MPA. They are seaweed farmers, fishermen and guesthouse owners, and they are all dedicated to the protection and management of the marine ecosystems around their islands. The community has already seen the positive impact of clear and effective management. With strict regulations supporting local customs and livelihoods, local communities have become increasingly invested in the MPA.

Brooke Pyke/CTC

The coral reefs around the islands are subject to the same destructive processes as many reef systems around the world: climate change, destructive fishing practices and extreme weather events all cause serious damage. But the reefs in the Nusa Penida MPA are also subject to a rapidly expanding tourism industry that poses increasingly complex challenges. With the growth in pontoons, boats dropping anchors, and inadequately informed marine tourists, the reefs are struggling. Higher numbers of people visiting the islands also puts strain on onshore resources, with construction booming, and an increase in waste produced without the infrastructure to dispose of it.

But before the sudden arrival of measures to protect against COVID-19, tourism was accelerating opinion on the need for the industry to invest in marine conservation efforts. With scuba diving and snorkelling operators popping up across the islands, the coral reefs, and the animals who rely on them, were a major draw for visitors. Growth in local business depended on the preservation of coastal and marine ecosystems.

Investing in sustainability

As tourism disappeared and lockdown measures forced businesses to close, local divers believe the reefs are showing signs of new life. They say they are seeing coral recovering from damage, and growth in fish abundance. They believe fewer boats and people in the water could be contributing to the revival of the reefs. These signs of quick recovery could guide a sustainable resurgence of tourism in the islands, and greater enforcement of zoning systems to protect and support marine life in the area.

Brooke Pyke/CTC

Nusa Penida is known for its large population of manta rays, as well as the oddly-shaped sunfish that visit each dry season. But without enforcement of the zoning system, properly planned growth, and regulations to ensure responsible dive practices, the islands could quickly lose their greatest appeal. Investment in the management of the MPA is seen as a high priority for the islands’ future, and would help to rebuild a sustainable industry after the pandemic passes.

The Coral Triangle Center has been working with the government and local communities to build capacity in MPA and marine resource management since 2010. Earlier this year, the CTC team conducted scuba diving and data collection training for the MPA management unit, in the hope that they will be able to survey, report and manage the MPA autonomously. ‘My hope is for Nusa Penida to be managed independently and for the benefit of the community, as well as in a way which sustains the marine and coastal ecosystems’ said Wira Sanjaya, the CTC project lead for the Nusa Penida MPA.

As the MPA managers build their capacity to support marine ecosystems, local communities are setting up and running new waste management programmes, including a recycling centre on Nusa Lembongan. Tourism operators are banding together to support conservation practices, with the Lembongan Marine Association (LMA), a group of dive operators based on the island, installing mooring buoys to protect the reefs from anchors, and sharing information to reduce their ecological impact.

Brooke Pyke/CTC

Andrew Taylor, the founder of a local dive shop and a member of the LMA, says local businesses are also starting to reduce their waste and have developed agreements on boat and diver numbers in order to reduce the strain put on the environment: ‘Over the last two years there’s been huge improvements that we’ve seen. Lots of new organisations springing up, lots of new environmental initiatives.’

By bringing together government agencies to form policy and enforce regulations, tourism operators to implement best practice and educate visitors, and local communities to raise awareness and build grassroots programs, the islands are becoming an example of effective local action to protect precious ecosystems.

The future isn’t straightforward for the islands, with the sudden collapse of a booming tourism industry and the real and lasting local impacts of the climate crisis. While tourism operators wait for a global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the shutdown could provide an opportunity to rebuild with sustainable practices and conservation at the heart of tourism in the islands. Meanwhile, local determination to protect, manage and conserve their marine and coastal ecosystems is a sign of the hope that remains for the world’s coral reefs.

Minka Curr (minkacurr@gmail.com) is an Australian journalist who is currently collaborating with the Coral Triangle Center through Australian Aid.

Inside Indonesia 141: Jul-Sep 2020

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