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Coral Reef Paradise Found in Remote Indonesian Islands

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 8, 2001
 
Scuba divers, take note: The waters of the Raja Ampat Islands off
Indonesia's province of Irian Jaya may replace heralded Palau as the
most species-rich sea in the world.

An international team of
marine biologists who visited the Raja Ampats recently to examine the
reefs said they found what may be an unparalleled array of
species—corals, fishes, and mollusks—including some species
never seen before.




The reefs of the Raja Ampat Islands had not previously been explored in detail. The islands, which lie off Sorong on the northwest coast of sparsely populated and still largely undisturbed Irian Jaya, are extremely remote. Irian Jaya is the western half of the island of New Guinea.

Gerald Allen from the Western Australia Museum in Perth led the recent scientific expedition, which was organized by Conservation International. Allen, an expert on coral reef fishes, broke his own world record, twice, for the number of species he saw in a one-hour dive—281 on one dive and 283 on another.

During the entire three-week expedition in March and April, Allen recorded seeing 950 different species of fish.

The scientists surveyed an area of about 3,700 square miles (6,000 square kilometers). Their results revealed what they said was an extraordinary wealth of marine biodiversity: 450 species of hard coral, more than 600 mollusk species, and possibly as many as 1,100 fish species.

Damselfish, one of the most abundant inhabitants of coral reefs, totaled more than 108—nearly as many as those recorded for all of the reefs surrounding the entire continent of Australia, according to the team's coral experts.

Besides conducting an initial inventory of the region's marine life, the scientists had set out to assess the condition of the Raja Ampats' reefs to determine what conservation measures might be needed. One significant finding was evidence of damage to the area's corals from illegal "blast fishing."

"The Raja Ampats are amazingly rich in marine biodiversity, but the reefs are threatened by illegal fishing and other human activities," said Sheila McKenna, a marine biologist at Conservation International. She was a member of the expedition team, which also included researchers from the University of Cendrawasih in Irian Jaya's capital, Jayapura.

Growing Threats

The Raja Ampats survey was preliminary, so whether the islands will surpass Palau as the place regarded as having the world's richest biodiversity is not yet known. Experts estimate that the Palau archipelago, which lies 600 nautical miles east of the Philippines, has 700 species of coral and 1,400 fish species.

Team member John Vernon, a scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science who is an expert on corals around the world, told Indonesia's Tempo magazine that the survey suggests Raja Ampats may have a higher density of species than the Palau region.

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.

Conservation Crucial

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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