When Imanuel Mofu dove down to the reef fringing Boo Island in early March last year, he knew immediately that something was amiss. The 32-year-old patrolman and his fellow crewmembers had inspected the colourful corals many times before. Now, they lay in pieces, bombed by fishermen to kill fish for easy collection.

“I was very sad to see this. A large part of the reef was gone,” recalls Mofu. Only one month before, another crew had been arrested for dropping explosives on a reef nearby that is also part of the Kofiau-Boo Islands Marine Protected Area (MPA), which is located in Raja Ampat, an archipelago in the province of West Papua in Indonesia’s far east.

It is rare that perpetrators get caught, Mofu says. Monitoring the park, which covers ​​148,979 hectares, an area about twice the size of Singapore, and contains a staggering 44 small islands, is no easy feat. Mofu heads out on patrols up to 10 times a month, yet no one can be everywhere at once, and the reserve lacks the resources to send out staff around the clock.

Most of the time, only traces of illegal fishing practices are found. That can be corals blasted to shreds. It can be unexploded, homemade fish bombs, sunk to the ocean floor. Sometimes, it is dead sharks, thrown back into sea after their fins had been cut. Every violation is meticulously documented by patrolmen to eventually get ahead of the offenders, increasingly through mobile applications.

Mofu is from Arborek, an indigenous village that is part of an Indonesian government programme to boost tourism in the area. His community relies on the reefs, not just for food—about a quarter of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy corals—but also because they attract visitors. And so, several years ago, he decided to join the patrol teams that scout the park to help keep it safe.

Communities know that if you don’t restrict commercial fishing, outsiders will come in and damage the ecosystems that their livelihoods depend on.

Mark Erdmann, vice president, Asia-Pacific marine programmes, Conservation International

Commitment from communities and the local government has been a key ingredient to West Papua’s success in safeguarding its rich marine ecosystems, says Meity Mongdong, who manages Conservation International’s West Papua programme, through which the group supports the Indonesian government’s marine conservation efforts in the province.

When the organisation surveyed the area’s incredible biodiversity and released the findings together with other environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy and the World Wide Fund for Nature in 2003, authorities promptly invited all customary leaders and other stakeholders to Tomolol village in the south of Raja Ampat to officially declare that the region needed protection, and that no more destructive fishing would be carried out. In 2006, the first two MPAs were introduced. Four more were added two years later. Today, more than a dozen parks are scattered across the region.

“Communities are extremely supportive of MPAs,” says Mark Erdmann, who is vice president for Conservation International’s Asia-Pacific marine programmes, and has provided technical support to conservation projects for many years. “They know that if you don’t restrict commercial fishing, outsiders will come in and damage the ecosystems that their livelihoods depend on.”

Taking ownership

More and more, villagers are recognised as critical stakeholders in conservation planning and management. In 2014, Indonesia established its MPA management authority (UTPD), which has since been turned into a collaborative institution to allow authorities and communities to look after marine parks and govern financial resources together. It is a trend that has emerged across Southeast Asia, notes Erdmann.

“In recent years, a major change in marine conservation has been a growing belief that it should be bottom-up,” he says. “Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, MPAs were set up through a top-down process. At the national level, somebody in a faraway skyscraper would decide on a new MPA, draw a line on the map, and drop out of the sky onto these communities. And they, of course, were not very happy about that.”

“No one likes to be told what to do,” he continues. “It’s far more effective to bring communities on board to give them a sense of ownership and ensure the area has value to them.” Ongoing education and outreach efforts are important too to make sure villagers don’t forget about the perils posed by overfishing, he adds.

Mongdong explains that involving communities in marine protection strengthens compliance and ensures that MPAs respect and build on existing indigenous traditions that villagers have upheld for generations to safeguard their resources. Among coastal dwellers in West Papua, for instance, it is common practice to only permit three species—trochus, lobster, and sea cucumber—to be caught and close certain areas for longer periods to allow them to recover.

Conservation programmes must also provide communities with alternative sources of income to compensate for lost fishing grounds, says Syafri Tuharea, a local manager for UTPD in West Papua. One way to do so is to foster responsible tourism. “There are already 250 resorts and homestay units across Raja Ampat. That’s quite high for an area that is just starting to feel the benefits of conservation,” he says.

Raja Ampat coral reef

A coral reef in Raja Ampat. The archipelago is the world’s most important coral diversity hotspot with 553 species recorded. Image: Buena VenturaCC BY 3.0 via Wikipedia Commons

Safeguarding biodiversity hotspots

West Papua is part of the Coral Triangle, an area that encompasses almost 4 million square miles of ocean and coastal waters in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and is considered the global epicentre of marine biodiversity. The Triangle hosts 76 per cent of the world’s coral species and the highest diversity of reef fish globally, with 6,000 different fish species documented.

The region’s biological resources directly sustain the lives of more than 120 million people that call it their home, and benefit millions more worldwide. In recent decades, governments have realised they need to formally protect these ecosystems to ensure their long-term survival. Almost 1,300 MPAs have been set up, spanning an area of 207,339 square kilometres, nearly 300 times the size of Singapore.

Preserving the region is critical, says William Cheung, professor at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries of the University British Columbia in Canada. He recently co-authored a study published in the scientific journal Nature that showed that placing key marine ecosystems, many of which are in the Asia Pacific, under protection could safeguard 80 per cent of the habitats of endangered marine species while boosting food security, refuting the long-held view that marine conservation harms fisheries.

Communities in Raja Ampat like to call the archipelago a piece of heaven that fell from the sky. If we use our marine resources wisely, they will sustain communities for generations to come.

Syafri Tuharea, manager, West Papua, UTPD

With 188 MPAs covering 187,221 km2 of ocean, Indonesia is leading the charge in Southeast Asia, followed by the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and Malaysia. In 2004, the country decided to set aside 20 million ha of coastal areas for MPAs by 2020, a target it recently updated to 30 million ha by 2030 to do its part in achieving the United Nations’ ambition to protect 30 per cent of the planet’s land and ocean by 2030.

But it’s not just the number of MPAs that is growing—they’re also getting bigger, says Erdmann. Indonesia has been opening more MPAs larger than 100,000 ha, but the Philippines and many other parts of Southeast Asia are moving in the same direction. Increasingly, countries also aim to link several MPAs in networks to better protect sharks, tuna and other species that travel across vast expanses of water.

Previously, governments across the region tended to create tiny marine reserves of one to 10 ha, which are too small to have a significant positive biological impact, explains Erdmann. “Most fish populations don’t stay within such small areas. They move across an area at least as large as a couple hundred hectares, and potentially 1,000 ha or more. If you want to manage those, you have to make the MPA big enough to cover where the population is.”

That said, there is a limit to how big MPAs can be before they become too unwieldy to manage. “In the Pacific, there’s this shift towards massive MPAs. These are fantastic, but you need a massive budget to do enforcement there as well,” Erdmann says.

Building resilience for tough times

Conservation efforts don’t come cheap. To patrol a marine reserve, fuel needs to be sourced and crews need to be paid. Boats require regular maintenance. Tuharea says that UTPD—like many other Southeast Asian conservation bodies—gets most of its funding from tourists who pay a conservation fee to explore Raja Ampat’s iridescent underwater world.

This meant that when Covid-19 abruptly shut down tourism across Southeast Asia last year, it cut off a vital source of income for many MPAs and the patrolmen that guard them. UTPD’s revenues fell drastically, from IDR18 billion (US$1.2 million) in 2018 to only IDR5 billion (US$350,000) in 2020.

As patrol crews struggled to keep operating, illegal fishermen quickly took advantage of the situation. “Only a trickle of money was coming in, and we immediately saw the bad guys seizing the opportunity to do more shark finning and blast fishing,” says Erdmann.

A trust fund set up by Conservation International five years ago and other emergency grants helped to keep marine protection in West Papua afloat, but many other MPAs across Southeast Asia didn’t have anything to fall back upon. “I heard myriad reports of overfishing and other illegal practices,” says Erdmann. “Overall, West Papua has done okay.”

Yet in the long term, it is crucial that green groups and governments don’t rest on their laurels, he warns. When trying to set aside large chunks of the ocean for protection, environment ministries can face an uphill battle against oil businesses and other industries operating offshore. But shifting political tides can also undermine existing conservation programmes.

“You can be working with one administration and get some great stuff on paper. You get the laws and the MPAs in place and everything is looking good. But when you have a change of government, those things can be undone very quickly,” he says. To hedge against such threats, authorities need to implement several layers of protection at different levels of government to ensure environmental regulations and curbs on tourism can’t be easily rolled back, he explains.

MPAs could also leverage innovative financing solutions to build resilience for difficult times. The demand for carbon credits is expected to rise by a factor of 15 by 2030, making the market worth US$50 billion. Conservation projects could claim a piece of the pie by generating blue carbon credits for the carbon that coastal ecosystems like mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes sequester to monetise their protection efforts. In addition, MPA managers could explore other modes of tourism, such as holiday homes, as a source of funding.

“Communities in Raja Ampat like to call the archipelago a piece of heaven that fell from the sky,” says Tuharea. “If we use our marine resources wisely, they will sustain communities for generations to come.”

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