Saving the "Amazon of the Seas"

Seaweed farming in Arenas Reef, Philippines.
(Jürgen Freund/WWF-Canon)

In the Indo-Pacific area, a 5.7 million square kilometre triangle contains over one-third of all known coral species on earth, over half the world's coral reefs, over 3,000 fish species, the greatest extent of mangrove forests of any region in the world, and the spawning ground for the largest tuna fishery in the world.

This area is known as the Coral Triangle and has been dubbed the "Amazon of the Seas". [See WWF's interactive map of the Coral Triangle]

Shared by six countries - the Philippines, Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), Indonesia (central and eastern), Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands - it is the epicentre of marine life abundance and diversity on the planet.

However, like most of the world's natural resources, it is now at grave risk. Climate change, over-fishing and pollution are threatening the Coral Triangle.

As it stands, biomass for some of the key commercial fish species are already down by about 90 percent from their levels 40 years ago, according to the the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI), which was initiated by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in August 2007, and almost 90 percent of the coral reefs in the region are considered "at risk" of being destroyed. "In Indonesia alone, only 6 percent of the coral reefs remain in top condition," said Eko Rudianto, overall coordinator for the CTI.


Photo: WWF
The Coral Triangle covers all or part of the seas of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste and Fiji. It directly sustains more than 120 million people living within this area, and benefits millions more worldwide

Beyond posterity

Saving the "Amazon of the Seas" is not just for posterity. According to CTI, around 120 million people living in the area depend daily on the Coral Triangle's marine resources, including those in the multi-billion dollar tuna industry and the tourism sector.

Millions more people also benefit. For instance, Rudianto explained to IRIN, tuna spawned in the Coral Triangle eventually migrate and are caught by fishermen from neighboring countries.

The World Resources Institute puts the total annual value of near-shore habitats within the coral triangle at US$2.3 billion. "We have to stop the rate of destruction," Rudianto said. "We need better management."

Regional approach

As the Coral Triangle and the threats to it are regional in nature, a regional approach is required. A number of similar initiatives between two or more countries in the region already exist, but Rudianto explained that CTI is broader in its coverage and approach, making it easier to garner support.

In December 2007, four months after CTI was first proposed, senior officials from the six countries met in Bali to initiate the process of developing a plan of action, the final draft of which will be presented to a second meeting in Manila later this year. The official CTI Plan of Action is expected to be formally adopted during the World Oceans Conference in Manado, Sulawesi, in May 2009.

"We have been surprised with the support," he added. The initiative is supported by institutions including USAID, which has committed US$4.35, and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the Asian Development Bank, which is providing US$63 million, and by international non-governmental organisations like the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy. According to the ADB, the GEF contribution is expected to catalyze at least US$425 million of co-financing for the CTI.


Photo: Brandon Cole/WWF
Fairy basslet fish schooling over a coral reef in the Indo-Pacific Ocean

Poverty

The plan of action is still being drafted, but Rudianto told IRIN addressing poverty, which leads to overexploitation and destructive fishing practices, will be one of the main objectives. "If we want to protect coral reefs and rehabilitate fisheries, it is not by planting new corals, it is by educating people and changing their mindsets," he explained.

A strategy that has proven effective is to establish village-level marine protected areas of 20-80 hectares each. "This is more sustainable because people have a sense of ownership," he said. The second step is to give people in the areas alternative sources of income.

With millions of kilometres of coastal areas, the task ahead is gargantuan. But CTI is confident that with sufficient cooperation from the countries involved and support from international organisations, the Coral Triangle can be saved.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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