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January 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 29, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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This Dive Resort is Taking a Stand

its no-take zone initiative is setting a global standard

from the January, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Local chiefs recall a time when the sea around Batbitim Island in Indonesia's southeastern Raja Ampat was an Eden, before boats from outside began to strip the stocks bare. Raja Ampat hosts more varieties of hard and soft coral than any other area on earth. The colors resemble confectioner's penny candy of every colour and gloss. The diversity of fishes is unrivalled: shoals and schools intermingle and occasionally explode in panic at the arrival of hunting devil rays or a grey reef shark.

Until the 1990s, sharks were common in these waters; local fishers had no use for them, preferring more marketable catches. But by the mid-2000s, that changed, due to a dramatic increase in the Chinese demand for shark fins, a status symbol at banquets of the nouveau riche. Soon longliners from across the archipelago, as well as from China and Taiwan, descended upon Raja Ampat, trailing lines with up to 2,000 hooks per line. Fishermen set up seasonal shark finning camps, including one on Batbitim Island, where Misool Eco Resort now stands. The north beach was scattered with desiccated cartilage from the sharks and rays caught to feed the voracious worldwide market in fins. The bodies, which have little commercial value, were left on beaches or sunk in the open water, often when the sharks were still alive.

But just a few years later, the sharks have returned. A remarkable collaboration between the local community and a committed group of foreign divers has established a no-take zone the size of Singapore in order to recover what has been lost.

Pushing for Change

The no-take zone was the brainchild of Andy Miners, a dive guide from Cornwall, England, an amateur marine biologist and a committed conservationist. Seeing the carnage on Batbitim Island, Miners decided to establish a resort and dive center to support a no-take zone that would allow for the re-stocking of depleted fish populations in southern Raja Ampat. He sold Marit Wechsler, Thorben Niemann and Mark Pearce on his idea, and the four raised money from friends in the diving community.

Besides hosting divers as paying guests, Misool Eco Resort runs a foundation, Misool Baseftin, and manages activities in the no-take zone, which is protected by ranger patrols. All these are about 70 percent locally staffed. While identifying young trainees and turning them into dive guides, Misool is filling the gap with experienced guides from Manado. Educating the locals about conservation is complicated. Across Indonesia, exploitation of resources pays for food and shelter, but conservation hardly pays at all, with most profits concentrated in the hands of local tour operators. Misool gives locals a stake in maintaining these activities, and the increased catch on the fringes of the zone has amply demonstrated a tangible value.

Miners negotiated with southeastern Misool's chiefs for months before the no-take zone was finally agreed upon, in 2005. They were keenly interested in the idea, because they were not profiting from the shark trade; the fishermen paid a license fee of just US$30 per month, which allowed them to take as much as they wanted, with no restrictions. As for the long-liners, they usually arrived after dark to deploy their lines, harvesting more in a single night than villagers might in a year. The locals were powerless to stop them. So the chiefs and their constituencies were enthusiastic about creating a no-take zone that was close enough to their villages to reap the benefits of the spill-over effect.

Indonesian law recognizes the exclusive ownership of marine zones to traditional "owners"; in this case, the local villages. Miners established relations with the chiefs of the inhabited islands nearest to the resort, and it was their cooperative agreement with each other that was key to establishing the zone and its boundaries. Then the agreement was approved by the district and provincial fisheries departments.

Patrolling the Zone

The establishment of the no-take zone led to the expulsion of shark-finning camps, and the regulation of boats in the area; boats could transit the zone but couldn't fish there. Local rangers, many of them ex-shark fishermen, operate from three ranger bases and patrol with three boats. Fishing boats are seized and impounded, and the catches are jettisoned into the water. The boats are held until the perpetrators pay a fine to the local village council.

The patrol has chased off numerous large long-liners. The most dramatic capture so far was two fishing boats from Sulawesi, their roofs covered with drying fins. The boats were caught just after their nets were submerged, and when rangers boarded the boats and dragged the nets from the water, entangled sharks were cut free and saved. More common are the seizures of local boats from Sorong -- dozens a month were driven off, and as word of the vigilant ranger patrols spread, the number of seizures has declined to an average of two per month.

The patrols took a "soft" approach to local fisherman infringements. Fines were not imposed, but catches were confiscated. Meetings were held in the offenders' villages, when the elders would discuss the zone's positive impact. In the last five years, those violations have fallen by 90 percent.

The patrols are paid by donations from Misool Eco Resort as well as from NGOs and private donors. The rangers coordinate patrols with the resort and with local villages that report boats in the area. In 2010, the no-take zone was expanded eastward to include the Daram Islands, doubling the size of the zone. At 514 square miles, this marine-protected area is twice the size of Singapore.

The positive impact of the no-take zone can be quantified. Marine biologist Mark Allen is studying the biomass of certain fish species at several dive sites in the zone, and says that between 2007 and 2013, biomass has increased by an average of 250 percent. Diving the house reef off the Misool pier reveals every common reef species, except more and larger: snappers, a school of juvenile jacks, giant Malabar groupers, napoleon wrasses, bumphead parrotfish and the occasional great barracuda. Every dive site reveals these, as well as grey reef, white-tip, black-tip and wobbegong sharks, schools of barracudas and all types of pelagics. Rare nocturnal epaulette sharks are no longer rare here. The channel that separates Batbitim from a neighboring island was once renowned for shovel-nosed rays, but they were systematically netted and finned. However, the population is recovering. There are other rarities: blotched fantail rays, Sargassum frogfish, and hammerhead, silver-tip and whale sharks.

A protected cove on the north beach now hosts black-tip sharks giving birth and teaching the juveniles to hunt. Its northwest corner hosts a colony of mandarinfish, endemic species such as flasher wrasse, and a species of pygmy seahorse found nowhere else on earth. Renowned marine zoologist Gerald Allen has discovered numerous new species in the area, including a stingray with a 13-foot disk width.

One of Misool Baseftin's conservation programs, the Misool Manta Project, studies the endemic and transitory ray populations of southern Raja Ampat by taking DNA samples, tagging mantas with radio tracking devices and photographing them. Radio receivers are moored at depths of 165 feet at strategic points inside and outside the zone, and provide a fascinating map of these creatures as they move from station to station. So rich are the nutrients in the water that these receivers are completely encrusted by sponges, molluscs and marine algae within a few months.

Infractions in the Zone

Between 2007 and 2013, the biomass of
certain fish species at many dive sites
in the no-take zone has increased by an
average of 250 percent.

The most effectively patrolled areas of the no-take zone are those that benefit from lineof- sight radio communication between the ranger stations and the patrol boats. Locals report suspect vessels and assist the patrols to protect their assets. The local fishermen benefit from the zone by fishing just beyond its borders, however, the fringes of the zone are still preyed upon. In Daram, on the far west of the islands, there is evidence of recent dynamite fishing. Devastated sections of hard coral scatter on the sea floors below, gorgonian fans and soft corals ripped loose to drift along as they slowly die, an emperor angelfish with its eyes blown loose, and wounded red snappers finning ineffectively until the barracuda find them.

This practice is still found across the archipelago. A ship in Daram threatened an unarmed Misool patrol boat with a bomb. That ship escaped, but the ranger patrol now includes an armed plainclothes marine police officer. Before the establishment of the zone, turtles were also preyed upon. Green, hawksbill and especially leatherback turtles are endangered. Although turtles are protected under national law, Indonesian villagers still kill and eat them. Shark fishermen cut open still-living turtles, extracting their intestines to use for bait. On Daram's beaches, I saw the drag marks of green turtles on sand as they climbed toward the treeline to lay and bury their eggs, followed by footprints of the men who followed those same trails and dug up the nests. Turtle eggs remain a prized protein source, though an illegal one.

This mass killing continues elsewhere. North Sulawesi's Lembeh Strait was once known for sharks and rays, but they were wiped out by a few longliners who stripped the Strait over a sixmonth period in the 1990s. It is now only known for small creatures on the black sand. A few years ago north, a hammerhead breeding site in the Wakatobi Islands was found and annihilated in months. And in Bali's Nusa Penida, pregnant threshers are being exterminated in a breeding area near Sampalan Beach. The pups, which have no commercial value, are left on the beaches to be eaten by stray dogs. In Flores, slaughtering rays is the only growth industry.

And so the Misool no-take zone is all the more incredible. Thanks to the cooperation and combined conservation efforts of private enterprise and the local community, the Eden that the village chiefs remembered is returning.

Bobby Anderson ( rubashov@yahoo.com ) works on health, education, and governance projects in Eastern Indonesia, and he travels frequently in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and Papua Barat.

Note from Ben: There's more marine conservation going on in other parts of Raja Ampat. Go to the Undercurrent blog ( www.undercurrent.org/blog ) for an update from noted marine biologist Mark Erdmann and frequent Undercurrent contributor Maurine Shimlock about the latest protection efforts and how well they're working.

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