The biggest surprise for former CORAL Conservation Programs Director Rick MacPherson on his spring reef surveys off the north coast of Bali was that the nearshore reefs—which he expected to be teeming with life, “like the ‘Times Square’ of the Coral Triangle”—were instead very quiet. “Gone were the colorful reef fish grazing on algae on the coral rock, along with the usual underwater chorus of snaps and pops from their nibbling,” he recalls. The magnificent predator fish were gone too: no sharks, jack, snapper, or grouper.
Where he did find lots of fish, however, was displayed in front of the beach-long strip of restaurants in the village of Jimbaran just outside the Bali capital of Denpasar. There, hundreds of tourists were disembarking from tour buses and engaging in a feeding frenzy, selecting their favorite reef fish for dinner. Lobster and crab were on display as well. All of these fish and crustaceans play important ecological roles in keeping reefs healthy, so the fact that they were onshore, rather than on the reef, was disturbing. “The sheer volume surprised me,” says Rick. “I saw more grouper for sale on the beach than in one week of reef surveys.”
In nearby Amed, Reef Check Indonesia has worked for several years to discourage the practice of unsustainable reef fishing, while CORAL has complemented their efforts by building community support for a voluntary user fee system that would bring alternative income into the community through dive tourism. We have also been encouraging the community to take more ownership of their reef. In some other communities along the northern coast, locals have asserted their own access rights, establishing a “turf.” When poachers come in, they are chased out. In contrast to what he saw at Jimbaran, says Rick, those local “rights-based” fishery areas had visibly more abundant and intact fish communities. “It’s still obviously depleted, but you can see the recovery taking place.”
CORAL hopes that by building support from within communities like Amed, we can inspire replication of this kind of rights-based approach. At the same time, we plan to work with legislators and policymakers at the regency (local) or federal level to reinforce this type of ownership through legal decrees. Such a solution speaks to what CORAL is all about: bringing people—tourism operators, fishermen, NGO partners, government officials—together to reestablish healthy reefs.
In Honduras, the groundswell of interest in conserving coral reefs continues. CORAL’s Field Manager Jenny Myton recently appeared on “Frente a Frente,” the most viewed show on national television, to talk about Cordelia Banks, CORAL’s voluntary standards for sustainable marine tourism, CORAL and partners’ responsible seafood guide, and why reefs are important to every Honduran. Since her appearance on the show, she has been inundated with calls, including from government representatives. “The most important comments I’ve received are people telling me, ‘I now know why the reefs are so important’ or ‘I didn’t know you shouldn’t eat shark and turtle,’” says Jenny. “Now they know they have alternatives and can make better choices.”Jenny also led a scuba and sustainable marine recreation training for Tela’s municipal and federal government officials and a local NGO, Prolansate, at the request of the Mayor of Tela, who is interested in having the coral reefs of Capiro Banks declared a Site of Wildlife Importance before the end of the year. To that end, CORAL and the Healthy Reefs Initiative recently assessed the reef using the Atlantic Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment standard protocols to verify and delineate its extent and condition—and to provide the necessary documentation and basis for designating the reef a Site of Wildlife Importance.
With an estimated 97 million sharks being harvested each year, serious protection measures can’t come soon enough. In March, at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Conference of the Parties in Bangkok, member nations took action. They agreed to list the oceanic whitetip shark, three species of hammerhead shark (scalloped, smooth, and great), the porbeagle shark, and both species of manta rays in CITES Appendix II, an action that means increased protection but that still allows legal and “sustainable” trade. Countries supporting the listing included Brazil, Colombia, the European Union, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador, Mexico, Comoros, Egypt, the United States, and countries in West Africa, with opposition coming from Japan, Gambia, India, Grenada, and China. Sharks continue to be overharvested to meet Asian demand for shark fin soup and through bycatch; fishermen also catch some shark species for their meat, while others kill manta rays for their gill plates in support of the Chinese medicinal trade.
Says CORAL’s Conservation Programs Director Rick MacPherson, “The immediate outcome of the CITES listing for those species is that these seriously threatened sharks and rays can finally get some breathing room to recover. Of course CITES protections must be enforced or the designations are meaningless. But what these historic steps indicate is that short term financial interests don’t always trump long-term conservation vision.”
The Pew Charitable Trust’s Angelo Villagomez says CORAL’s and many other NGOs’ efforts undoubtedly contributed to the vote. “CITES decisions are not made by consensus, but by a vote. Fiji, Mexico, Honduras, and the United States were very supportive of the CITES shark proposals, and CORAL’s work on domestic campaigns in CITE S member countries surely played a part in that.”
The CITES decision comes as CORAL continues to push for greater shark protections in Fiji. CORAL has been publishing an ongoing series of editorials in the Fiji Sun, urging the government to adopt stronger standards, including a possible temporary moratorium on shark fishing, in its new National Plan of Action for Sharks. In late January, CORAL assisted the Fijian government and the Fiji Times in an investigation of the deaths of 27 baby scalloped hammerhead sharks on Nukulu Island.
And with Pew, our partners in this initiative, CORAL taught a “Pacific Shark School” in January in Suva. The school brought together shark conservation leaders from different islands and included a “Shark Biology 101” section and focused on strategies for conservation and work plans for each place.
“The most valuable part of the shark school was seeing how the training encouraged and inspired participants,” says Rick MacPherson. “It takes more than just ideas to succeed in conservation. It takes passionate and skilled professionals to bring home the win. The shark school was an exciting opportunity to unite shark conservationists across the Pacific who returned to their home campaigns with new tools and energy.”
Greater protection for sharks and rays is also on the way in Indonesia, where the Regency Government of Raja Ampat signed the shark and manta ray sanctuary it had designated back in 2010 into law. CORAL and many other NGOs—as well as CORAL’s partner, the Misool Eco Resort—have advocated for years for better shark protections in Indonesia. The law protects sharks and rays in 46,000 square kilometers (18,000 square miles) of ocean off the coast Raja Ampat. Sharks are starting to show signs of recovery in marine protected areas there.
Andrew Miners, Managing Director of the Misool Eco Resort, says the sanctuary “sends a clear signal to the national government that the destructive fishing of sharks and rays is extremely detrimental to Indonesia’s growing marine tourism industry and the local communities that are supported by it.” Manta ray tourism in Indonesia generates more than $15 million per year vs. three percent of that amount from a manta ray fishery.
CORAL is also working to create a network of locally managed protected marine areas in the Sunda-Banda region of Indonesia, which will benefit sharks and rays.
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Red lionfish—attractively striped but heavily armed with poisonous quills—were the focus of a fishing derby and cook-off sponsored by the Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA), Utila Chapter, in Honduras in late November. Native to the West Pacific and Indian Oceans, and Red Sea, red lionfish (Pterois volitans) were introduced into Caribbean waters about twenty years ago and have flourished there, outcompeting—and eating—native species.
CORAL helped plan and publicize the derby, in which twenty-two teams of divers participated. Over 350 lionfish were caught, says CORAL Field Representative Pamela Ortega, who helped fillet the fish for the cook-off on November 30. A few days later, CORAL and BICA staffed a booth at the Utila Food Festival, handing out responsible seafood guides and selling lionfish dishes. Says Pamela, “They have white flesh and a delicate flavor. They’re especially delicious in ceviche!"
This effort is part of a larger strategy employed within all of our Caribbean project sites to reduce these invasive predators by establishing a market demand for them. Last summer, our team presented a poster at the International Coral Reef Symposium on our work.
Officially speaking, the legislation that declared Cordelia Banks a “Site of Wildlife Importance” was signed in the landlocked Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. But the legislators actually made their decision far removed from their offices.
Last year, Jenny Myton, CORAL’s Honduras Field Manager, invited key government officials to visit Roatan. CORAL and our partners were seeking protections for Cordelia Banks and its healthy populations of endangered staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), and she believed that the site would sell itself to these critical decision-makers—if only they could see it for themselves.
A delegation headed by Josè Antonio Galdames, the Vice-Minister for the National Institute of Forest Conservation and Development, Protected Areas, agreed to travel to Jenny and learn more about this unique spot off of Roatan’s coast.
Before they could boat out to Cordelia and jump in the water, however, the group—with varying levels of swimming skills—took two weeks to learn how to snorkel and scuba dive. Eventually, all obtained their open water and advanced diver certifications.
Sure enough, when the Vice-Minister and his six colleagues descended into Cordelia’s shallow waters, they became some of its biggest advocates.
“You could see that they really got it,” Jenny said of the group’s eye-opening dive. “That experience did more for Cordelia than a hundred committee meetings in Tegucigalpa would have.”
The legislation, signed in May, is a critical first step toward managing and safeguarding one of the most spectacular natural resources on the Mesoamerican Reef. CORAL and our partners in Honduras are now seeking similar protections for the reefs off the mainland city of Tela.
“Despite having lived for many years in Roatan, I never had the opportunity to see Cordelia Banks,” Vice-Minister Galdames said. “It was through the perseverance of Jenny and Ian Drysdale [Jenny’s husband and fellow reef expert] that I was finally . . . able to see how beautiful it was and, at the same time, recognize the serious problems affecting our oceans.”
Political dives have a whole new meaning now!
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Asst. Director of Development