- Issue: Fall 2019
Massive schools of yellow-striped snapper dart by me, their sunny tails moving in mesmerizing synchrony. As I swim toward the shallows, I spot a cluster of rare Napoleon wrasse floating dreamily beneath a jetty; the huge, elaborately patterned fish have been nearly wiped out elsewhere because of overfishing. When it comes to sheer quantity of fish species, the Dampier Strait coral reefs in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat Islands are unlike any I’ve seen before.
Ten years ago, I first fell in love with coral reefs while taking an undergraduate field course in coral reef ecology here in Indonesia. Our assignment involved monitoring how small-scale protection within Wakatobi Marine National Park—a 5,000-square-mile marine protected area (MPA) in Southeast Asia’s Coral Triangle—was impacting fish populations. The course was career-defining: By the end, I knew I wanted to pursue marine conservation and help protect these incredible ecosystems.
But it wasn’t just the vast gardens of coral or the colorful fish that fascinated me. Talking with local people threw into sharp relief how much people depend on coral reefs, and the intricate connections between communities and their natural resources. What’s more, they made clear to me the importance of incorporating local knowledge into conservation work.
Since then, I’ve worked with small NGOs in Honduras to empower local people to better manage invasive species on deep coral reefs. I’ve supported local experts and governments in using their marine resources more effectively. And recently, I teamed up with a group of Mexican scientists to help them analyze data about the illegal harvesting of black corals in the Mesoamerican Reef. These scientists then used the results to lobby the Mexican government, and—I’m excited to say—thanks to their hard work, black corals are now nationally protected.
Now I’ve come full circle. Not far from the reefs where my career began, I glide through the water alongside fellow WWF scientists above these astonishingly healthy corals in the Dampier Strait. We’ve come here to join Indonesian scientists in assessing how this no-fishing area, created by a small village in recognition of the benefits of ecotourism, is functioning: What are its socio-ecological impacts? Is it increasing in biodiversity? How can it work better? Our assessment is just one part of a holistic program that seeks to inform MPA management and help balance protecting biodiversity with securing livelihoods along the country’s coasts.
Across Indonesia, coral reefs are under increasing threat from overfishing and destructive fishing practices. That’s why WWF’s approach to MPAs focuses partly on building sustainable fisheries: We help create no-take zones, to allow fish to grow to adult sizes; we promote fishing techniques that have less impact on the environment; and we develop alternative sources of income, such as seaweed farming, to reduce pressure on reef systems. The healthier reefs that result are more productive and can support people’s livelihoods long into the future.
But our efforts can be effective only if local people support them. So while the MPAs are recognized by the Indonesian government, WWF collaborates closely with local communities—many of whom have carried on their own traditional resource management practices for centuries—to ensure people have the knowledge, tools, and support they need to conserve their resources. In my role, that means working with local experts to analyze data about coral reefs and fisheries, and ensuring that scientific data is being communicated to decision-makers who can take action.
Together, these community-level conservation projects have reinforced for me the idea that if you’re working with local people who know where the key opportunities are, you can have a much bigger impact.