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Celebrating World Oceans Day in the Coral Triangle

9 Jun

In honor of World Oceans Day, I begin with what is intended to be a series of blogs about my experience researching marine resource use and conservation in Indonesia through the Fulbright Scholarship.  My adventures thus far in Indonesia have led me to explore some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs, interview small-scale fishermen in a foreign language, climb volcanoes, commit to a diet of rice, live in a present day kingdom, learn to drive a motorbike in terrifying traffic, and become an even greater steward of our planet’s lungs- the ocean. With barely 1% of the ocean protected and the dark reality of ocean acidification, plastic pollution, and collapsing fish populations, I invite readers on a journey to acknowledge the beauty, significance, and promise of marine ecosystems.

On Friday morning, May 17, I waited among crowds of eager government officials, scientists and students, NGO and international aid representatives, and the press, for the Vice-President of Indonesia to give an opening speech for the World Conference on Coral Reefs. The arrival of the Vice-President to the conference marked Indonesia’s commitment to the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI-CFF)- a multilateral six-country partnership between Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. The goal of the conference was to ensure sustainable marine and coastal management in the world’s most biodiverse marine ecosystem. Discussed during the conference was how to preserve the 600 different coral species and 2,500 reef fish among other unique creatures, while providing food and economic benefits to the 363 million people reside that in the Coral Triangle.

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The 4-day conference consisted of a series of events and meetings focused on writing the Coral Triangle Initiative legislation, coral reef and marine protected area policy, development of aquaculture and seaweed industries, coastal and marine tourism, and Blue Carbon. The promise and power of the ocean to provide wealth and regulate our biosphere was appropriately celebrated. For example, Blue Carbon was advertised as a new program that could be used to reduce our atmospheric CO2 by conserving seagrass, mangrove, and salt marsh ecosystems. These systems are actually far more efficient (maybe up to 100 times faster) at sequestering carbon than terrestrial forests, but one of the most threatened by rapid development and tourism (1). And if I was not delighted enough by the exchange of thought, there was even the launching of the CTI-CFF Women’s Forum that honors the role of six women pioneers in sustaining coral reefs, and ensures that the rights and role of women in marine industries and conservation will be acknowledged. I applaud the leadership of these six countries to create a regional alliance and hope that this type of momentum and cooperation can be found elsewhere in global climate change arenas in the future.

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In my work researching the sustainability of grouper in small-scale fisheries of Indonesia, I cannot overemphasize the necessity and urgency of increasing marine sustainability. For the past 4 months, I have been working with small-scale fishermen and fishmongers to collect samples of grouper fish. My goal is to compile data on current grouper stock structure and help create a database at the Indonesian Biodiversity Research Center so that these populations can be analyzed using genetic tools. Secondly, I plan to discuss previous and future conservation of grouper and grouper reproductive behavior (spawning aggregates) with stakeholders (i.e. fishermen, NGOs, management officials, scientists). By interviewing various stakeholders, I will collect information about fishing practices, prices, target species, and areas of highest production.

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Although my work is focused locally on a few islands in Indonesia, it has some surprisingly strong international ties.  Grouper is a high-value species (a 1 billion USD market) that has been a main component of the growing Asian live-reef fish and luxury seafood trade. Indonesia is one of the top grouper fish producers in the world, yet most local citizens are denied the enjoyment of this high quality seafood. My study has led me to understand that small-scale fisheries are tightly networked with export industries through fish collectors. By travelling to small villages throughout the archipelago of Indonesia and sending the fish overnight to Bali (the center of export to Taiwan and Hong Kong), the access of these export businesses appear geographically unlimited. More shocking to me, are the economic gaps between small-scale fishermen and international exporters and the lack of ability to negotiate price. With roughly a quarter of all grouper species at risk of becoming extinct, the recent increase in the export of grouper is a great concern for the sustainability of small-scale fisheries.

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I’ve been dreaming of turtles, nudibranchs, crabs, sharks, seahorses, and every other bizarre creature that inhabits coral reefs since I was a child. When I applied for a Fulbright, it was my goal to work with and further understand the communities that rely on directly marine resources for food and economic gain. Yet a reality that has presented itself to me through the course of this research is that my once pristine imagery of coral reefs now includes humans. Fortunately, as stewards of the sea we can choose to have positive rather than negative impacts on these impeccably beautiful ecosystems. While the balance between preservation and resource use is still a mind-blogging puzzle, it is my perception that education, open communication, and community-based effort are the most likely solutions. So, in respect to the theme of this year’s World Oceans Day, I reiterate that whether you are an Indonesian fishermen, a mathematician, an artist, a home-maker, a politician, or a firecracker of a Smith student or alumna (I know there are few of those) “Together, we have the power to protect the oceans”.

Happy World Oceans Day!

Sarah Tucker, ’13

Indonesian Biodiversity Research Center
Fulbright Student 2013-2014

 

References :

http://www.un.org/en/events/oceansday/

http://bluecarbonportal.org/

http://www.coraltriangleinitiative.org/events/world-coral-reef-conference

http://www.eco-internships.com/2012/05/21/one-quarter-grouper-species-fished-extinction/