Raja Ampat 2012: Swimming with Ocean Nomads

This is the eleventh 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 post was authored by Edy Setyawan, CI-Indonesia’s Kaimana marine conservation and science officer, and is cross-posted on CI’s blog.

This is my first trip to Raja Ampat, and I never imagined I would be diving with so many turtles and seeing them so frequently.

It is the tenth day of our reef health monitoring trip, and we’ve spotted 50 sea turtles: 17 Green and 33 Hawksbill (the only two species of sea turtle found in Raja Ampat). We’ve encountered the creatures in 26 of the 46 locations we have surveyed and even found eight turtles in a single dive. Most of the turtles were not disturbed by our presence as they chewed on soft corals and sponges, which are an important part of their diet.

Turtles are nomads that traverse entire oceans, but they’re threatened globally and are in need of urgent protection. According to Ismu Nur Hidayat, CI’s Raja Ampat Monitoring and GIS Coordinator, nearly all of Raja Ampat’s uninhabited islands with sandy beaches serve as nesting sites for turtles.

Generally, sea turtles need white sandy beaches with gentle slopes in order to lay eggs. There are many small islands in Raja Ampat that meet that description: they include Wayag-Sayang, Ayau and Misool.

Turtles in Raja Ampat—and in many other regions of Indonesia—are exploited for their meat and eggs. Local people still use turtle meat for both traditional feasts and daily consumption. However, in marine protected areas (MPAs), we are seeing a reduction in the exploitation of turtles.

For example, on Kofiau—an island in Raja Ampat—it is now more difficult to hunt turtles. Following a traditional declaration which formalized a zoning system for the MPA, the local communities are actively patrolling their MPA, and this has resulted in a reduction in the number of turtles exploited.

According to Naftali, a local from Kofiau who is helping us with the monitoring, turtle catchers have given up their trade because they have family members who are working in the MPA patrol team. He thinks the traditional declaration has made a big difference for local turtles.

However, protecting turtles by banning turtle exploitation is not enough: we also need to protect their habitat. Turtles return to the beaches where they were born to lay their eggs, and they cannot lay their eggs if those nesting sites are degraded.

In 2010, the Raja Ampat local government issued a formal letter forbidding the capture of sharks, rays, dugongs and turtles. Currently, the local government is drafting a regulation to strengthen this formal letter. But follow-up campaigns are needed to ensure that local communities commit to protecting turtles.

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

(First image: A Hawksbill sea turtle. First image credit: Edy Setyawan. Second image: A Hawksbill sea turtle swimming with a school of fish. Second image credit: Gabby Ahmadia.)

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