The Raja Ampats lie in the heart of the "coral triangle"an area encompassing reefs of northern Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea.
The Raja Ampat waters may be especially rich in species, the scientists said, because the islands lie at a point where sea currents from surrounding areas converge. That creates a conducive environment for fish, coral, and other organisms from various habitats.
Relative to other reefs in the area, the marine biologists found the reefs of Raja Ampats to be in good condition. However, the scientists were particularly concerned by signs of damage from increased illegal fishing by local people and commercial fishing boats from Thailand and the Philippines.
A growing number of fishers use dynamite and cyanide blasts to stun the fish. The fish then float at the surface of the water, making them easy to catch and sell.
The dynamite and cyanide also kill the corals, which biologists liken to rain forests in the uniqueness and importance of their biodiversity.
In some regions of Indonesia, fishing with explosives has reduced coral cover by as much as 80 percent, according to the World Fish Center, based in Penang, Malaysia. In the Raja Ampats' reefs, damage from dynamite and cyanide was seen at 15 percent of the sites the Conservation International team examined.
The researchers said they were also concerned about siltation of the reefs from illegal logging in adjacent areas. The sedimentation smothers and can eventually kill coral and fish. Waters around the Raja Ampat archipelago and other islands in the area were declared nature reserves in the early 1990s, but illegal logging has been a big problem throughout Indonesia, especially in the aftershocks of the Asian economic crisis.
"The results of our assessment point to the need to work closely with the local communities to better manage and protect this stunning and vital area," said McKenna.
The survey by the ten-member scientific team included a study of how people in the region use and depend on the region's marine resources, which has important implications for managing and preserving the reefs. An estimated 7,700 people live in 22 communities scattered across the Raja Ampat cluster of both large and small islands.
The survey indicated that more than 90 percent of the adult population of the Raja Ampats is engaged in subsistence-level fishing.
Because of this dependency, the scientists said, local government officials and village leaders must be included in any national and international planning of how to ensure long-term survival of the region's marine wealth.
One conservation strategy that could help, the scientific team suggested, is working to have the Raja Ampats designated a World Heritage Site. "The Raja Ampat Islands are certainly deserving of World Heritage status and every effort should be made to conserve them," said Vernon (see sidebar).
Conservation International is preparing a final report on the results of its survey of the Raja Ampats. Officials of the group said the report will include guidelines on how to ensure community-based protection of the area's reefs and other marine resources.
Some conservationists have suggested that Palau, an independent group of islands in the Philippine Sea, might provide a good model for strategies to conserve the Raja Ampat Islands. Eager to conserve its reefs and natural beauty to insure the area's appeal as a tourist destination, the government of Palau protects much of its surrounding seas.
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