Feature Story

Coral Triangle conservation

May 1, 2016

A few Bajau still live in the traditions of their ancestors, working ancient trade routes among the scattered islands of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. This is part of the Coral Triangle, a region spanning six countries and nearly six million square kilometers encompassing the oldest and richest coral system on Earth

Legend has it that centuries ago a flood washed away a princess from Johor, Malaysia.

In his grief, her father ordered his subjects to sea, to return only when they had found his daughter. So goes the creation myth of the Bajau, a Malay people who are among the world’s last sea nomads.

A few Bajau still live in the traditions of their ancestors, working ancient trade routes among the scattered islands of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. This is part of the Coral Triangle, a region spanning six countries and nearly six million square kilometers encompassing the oldest and richest coral system on Earth

Some Bajau are born at sea in narrow, high-prowed vessels called lepa-lepa, coming ashore only occasionally to trade pearls, fish, or sea cucumber for rice, water, or other necessities. Government programs have resettled many of the Bajau to villages built on stilts — these communities, some of them as much as a kilometer from shore — dot the islands.

Whether nomadic or sedentary, the Bajau depend entirely on the sea as do many people in this region. The Coral Triangle is home to more than 150 million people, half of whom rely on marine resources as their primary source of protein. This area supports the largest tuna fisheries in the world, which generate billions of dollars in global income every year. The spectacular reefs and blue waters draw tourists from around the world. In the Philippines alone, annual tourism revenues top US$4.5 billion, at least US$1 billion of which is tied to coastal and marine venues. All told, the value of fisheries, tourism, and shoreline protection from coral reefs, mangroves, and associated habitats is estimated to be US$2.3 billion annually.

The Bajau offer a window into how such statistics about the value of ecosystems translate into the real lives of people directly dependent on nature. Far from the tuna, or shrimp, boats or tourist enclaves; Bajau fishers, who are skilled free divers, hunt with homemade goggles and spear guns at depths of 30 meters or more. They have also adopted more modern and more destructive fishing methods, including dynamite and potassium cyanide. The poison stuns grouper and other reef fish in high demand for the restaurant trade, then the cyanide settles onto the coral and kills it.

The widespread use of such techniques, hardly limited to the Bajau, has led to the destruction of reefs across the Coral Triangle: Eastern Indonesia, parts of Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Solomon Islands, specifically the Sulu Sea and inland waters of the Philippines, Celebes/Sulawesi Sea, Java Sea, Flores Sea, Banda Sea and parts of the Pacific Ocean extending to the border between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Through the millennia, genetic diversity from two oceans has been mixing in this region characterized by extremely complex bathymetric and oceanographic features, including deep troughs, upwellings, strong currents, and shallow shelves.

The Coral Triangle, also known as the “nurseries of the seas,” is the global center of marine biodiversity, holding more than 75 percent of the known coral species, six of seven species of marine turtle, and about 3,000 species of reef fish — more than twice the number found on reefs elsewhere. Healthy reef systems also help buffer coastal communities from surf and tidal extremes caused by severe storms and tsunamis.

Just as ARPA illustrates how the Amazon forests are crucial components of a sustainable future, so too the protection of reefs and mangroves in the Coral Triangle will be vital to help people in the region adapt to climate change and secure their future. In late 2007, the six governments of the Coral Triangle — Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor Leste — agreed to establish a new international partnership to conserve coral reefs and the multitude of species and fisheries they support. In May of 2009, the six nations gathered at the Coral Triangle Initiative Summit in Manado, Indonesia, where the Heads of states signed a historic declaration adopting a 10-year plan of action to avert the growing threats to the region’s coral reefs, fish, mangroves, vulnerable species, and other vital marine and coastal living resources.

The Coral Triangle Initiative derives from high-level political commitments and proactive implementation by governments of the Coral Triangle area, supported by multilateral and bilateral agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and private sector partners. The six countries have chosen to address in partnership the management, conservation and adaptation to climate change of the tuna fisheries and coral ecosystems in that region.

So far, the GEF is the largest contributor of funds to the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI). Planning of the GEF program for the Coral Triangle was led by the participating countries and it was assisted by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the coordinating agency, and four other GEF agencies: FAO, UNDP, UNEP and the World Bank, in addition to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). To support the Initiative, in 2008 the GEF began a program of US$63 million that covers biodiversity, international waters, and adaptation to climate change activities. The program has also been able to catalyze more than US$300 million of co-financing for the Initiative to conserve tuna and coral ecosystems while alleviating poverty.

The GEF/ADB program in the Coral Triangle provides a framework for action on conservation of the Southeast Asia portion of the Coral Triangle and support the region’s sustainable development. The effort includes establishing national and sub-regional governance frameworks and regional mechanisms to address threats to marine resource systems, and strengthening capacity of key institutions responsible for coastal and marine resources management, especially at the national and local levels.

The program helps countries in the Coral Triangle expand national Marine Protected Areas (MPA) and Marine Managed Areas (MMA) networks. But as in the case of Namibia’s protected areas, the size of the area protected is not the only issue. The program also helps develop adaptive management strategies in response to climate change impacts. It supports these strategies by creating mechanisms for coordinated and sustainable financing of these efforts, including inputs from governments, multilateral and bilateral development partners, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector. The initiative brings together for the first time all the partners needed to mobilize action in the countries of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The sustainable management of these resources is crucial to ensure that an adequate supply of food exists to directly sustain 120 million people living along the coastlines.

The GEF program supports more than 10 projects in the six participating countries. Among them is a US$3.88 million grant to restore productive capacity of critical watersheds, enhance biodiversity conservation and protected area networks and reduce poverty of dependent communities in selected watersheds in the Philippines. It is being implemented by the ADB and includes cofinancing of US$103 million.

This recently launched project envisions integrated natural resources management of watershed resources in the upper river basins. The goal is to optimize economic and ecological benefits for national development, social equity, and enhanced quality of life, especially for the poor local communities. These efforts will slow the degradation and overexploitation of target watersheds, and eventually lead to their rehabilitation, enabling them to produce water and other environmental goods and services on a sustainable basis. Improved watershed management will also help reduce poverty in local and dependent communities. The project will help conserve globally significant biodiversity, reduce landbased pollution of coastal waters, protect carbon stocks, and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions.

The GEF-funded program also aims to improve the management of fisheries in the Coral Triangle. The countries in the region are among the largest fish producers in the world, and the industry is an important source of employment and economic growth. A significant portion of the catch comes from bottom-trawling, which supplies low-value fish to be used as feed in aquaculture operations. Poorly managed bottom-trawling poses significant threats to both the environment and the economy. The nets damage coral when dragged across the seabed, and they snare bycatch — fish and other marine organisms that lack value because they are too small or are considered inedible.

Wasteful and destructive bycatch is an increasingly important problem. Some large-scale operations, for example the shrimp fleets in Indonesia’s Arafura Sea, simply discard what they consider low-value fish. The fish killed in this process may include juveniles of ecologically important and economically valuable finfish, threatening the viability of an important fishery and the livelihoods it supports. Trawlers may also catch sea turtles unless the boats are equipped with special turtle extruder devices designed to keep the creatures out of the nets. Smaller-scale trawl operators make use of nearly all their catch, selling the low-value fish for aquaculture or local markets. Faced with declining catches of larger and more valuable species, pinched by rising fuel prices and weak access to markets, and hampered by poor post-harvest methods, more and more fishers in the Coral Triangle depend on bycatch as a source of income.

The problems of waste, capture of juveniles and sea turtles, and damage to reefs need to be addressed not only in an environmental context but in the context of poverty and food security. The GEF program is working to improve the management and monitoring of bycatch in close collaboration with current resource users. Some of the key initiatives include: establishing bycatch management plans; promoting the use of more selective fishing gear; developing sustainable policies and practices such as zoning fishing areas; and promoting awareness of and knowledge on trawl fisheries bycatch management. The program has also helped to generate better data on the overall fishing effort and capacity, bycatch trends, and mapping of fishing grounds.

The problem of bycatch is global. The effort in the Coral Triangle aligns with international efforts to improve trawl fisheries and may offer important lessons on what measures work best in managing bycatch, reducing waste, and thus improving fisheries resources. Improved management and sustainable use of resources is the goal of the GEF’s efforts in International Waters and Large Marine Ecosystems. The beneficiaries are not just the fish. In the Coral Triangle, regional, national, and local stakeholders — in particular the fishermen, fish workers, and communities that depend on healthy and sustainable fisheries for their livelihoods and food security — all stand to gain.