This is the first in a multi-part series chronicling the 2012 trip to monitor the health of coral reefs in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. This year, Conservancy scientists are traveling to Raja Ampat alongside colleagues from CI and WWF.

This first post was authored by Helen Fox, a marine conservation biologist with WWF, and is cross-posted on CI’s blog.

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 expanse of ocean covering the seas of six countries in Asia and the Pacific. The waters surrounding the islands boast incredible biodiversity: with over a thousand different species of reef fish, hundreds of corals, sharks and manta rays, it’s a “species factory” for marine life. In 2007, the local government created a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) that protects nearly 50 percent 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 journey will also link to innovative social research that is being done to document the impacts of marine protected area establishment on local communities.

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 percent of reefs within the Coral Triangle region are currently threatened by local stressors, which is substantially higher than the global average of 60 percent. The most widespread local threat is overfishing, including destructive fishing. Shark populations in Raja Ampat have seen dramatic decline due to finning practices.

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!

Learn more about the Conservancy’s involvement in the game-changing Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security.

(First image: Dr. Mark Erdmann of CI and TNC’s Sangeeta Mangubhai. First image credit: Sally Kailola/TNC.)

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