After the bombs

A badly damaged reef off Java is getting a second chance thanks to the efforts of an NGO/private company partnership

The Sunda Straits, the seas between the islands of Java and Sumatra, are chiefly famous for being the site of Krakatau, the volcano which blew apart in spectacular fashion in the late 19th Century. Today the remnants of the island draw tourists, many of whom also visit the nearby national park of Ujung Kulon on the Java mainland.

Within the park is Pulau Badul, a far less celebrated island than Krakatau that just barely peeks above sea level at high tide. This island has also been damaged, but in this case the culprit is man -in particular, fishermen who have resorted to the mindless practice of fish bombing.

The tiny island had its surrounding reef almost completely destroyed by fish bombing five years ago and though it has been protected ever since, the reef has started to regrow only slowly, so complete was the devastation caused by the fishermen.

In May, the World Wildlife Fund’s Indonesian branch partnered with the area’s only dive operator, Java Sea Charters, to organise the first ’Build your own reef’ weekend. Their aim was to build an artificial reef that will accelerate the restoration of the area’s marine life and ecosystem, and at the same time support the local fishing communities who also need outside help.

Switching bombs for bait

Fish bombing is common practice all over Indonesia. Fishermen use explosives to kill the fish which come floating to the surface where they can take their pick. The bombs however kill everything: all smaller fish and critters, soft corals, hard corals. Sadly none of this is of any commercial interest to the fishermen. When they collect their catch, anything other than the bigger edible fish gets left behind, together with the reef-now-turned-graveyard. In the worst cases, an entire eco-system can be lost, with the reef left a ruin for years to come.

The practice is being increasingly monitored by authorities, but is very difficult to halt entirely in a country as poorly policed and difficult to govern as Indonesia. Therefore, here even more than elsewhere, the sustainability of any environmental project depends on the local community taking ownership of it as early as possible.

With ’the stick’ alone not a viable option, WWF has been trying ’the carrot’: working on involving the locals as much as possible, and having them profit from the projects economically. Getting things started, in an area where the reefs are effectively gone, means attracting people to invest in the project. In Java Sea Charters case, they could help in attracting divers to the area to help with their time and their dollars.

Better ways

To take the place of fishing, villagers are going to need not one but a variety of sources of income. Without these alternatives, the fishermen will tend to encroach not only on the marine area but also on terrestrial parts of the park in search of a living.

The first alternative is intended to be coral farming, which will produce the colonies needed later for reef building. In the case of the inaugural trip, 40% of the proceeds of the weekend went to pay the villagers for their ’products’ and on associated costs.

As yet, a coral-farming villager can not generate enough income from it to sustain himself, and inevitably this will be supplemented by some fishing. But as the villagers get more actively involved in the farming, with at least some of their income stemming from it, the hope is that this will lessen the appetite for bombing.

A second source of income could be tourism, but this is a longer-term goal. Tourism is always a double-edged sword because it can cause destruction itself, but handled well, it can improve the sustainability of marine life (and for that matter other wildlife as well – important in an area that has the only large population of Javan rhino left in Indonesia).

The Maldives stand out as an example of a country that has successfully managed its marine life thanks to the needs of tourism and already, WWF projects in Ujung Kulon have managed to draw some attention from avid divers, who sometimes sleep in the villages, rent local boats, and explore other parts of the area.

The group’s first dive at Pulau Badul was to show what can be done when humans interfere subtly to give nature a little help. Around one stretch of the island’s coast, WWF has constructed several artificial reefs from hollow concrete cubes. Piling these in a pyramid has given plenty of surface area on which the coral can grow, and at the same time smaller fish are provided with a sheltered area in which to escape predators. Only one year after their construction, these artificial reefs are showing a promising amount of marine life, with young hard and soft corals, schools of catfish, plenty of lionfish, and shrimp, to name a few.

The reef which the divers were to help build was to be slightly different. Small hard and soft coral colonies had been attached to substrate blocks and grown in shallow pools, which were now attached to concrete beds offshore. The pre-grown colonies should give the development of the newer reefs a jump start compared to the existing pyramid structures.

Paying customers

When Java Sea Charters launched the initiative to contribute to WWF’s efforts in the park, the trip was quickly booked up – apparently many divers felt they not only wanted to enjoy marine life as passive viewers, but jumped at the chance to play an active role in maintaining its diversity.

Some admitted there were selfish reasons for wanting this. Louis Dijshoorn was one of those who attended: “I never really thought about reefs in that much detail, nor actually how to make them. The target was to have a nice ’educational moment’ while doing my hobbies of diving and sailing – in other words it was 100% win-win.”

Many discovered that helping out with the work on the reefs gave them as much satisfaction as more traditional, adrenalin-fuelled divers’ kicks, such as encounters with large shark or lounging with giant manta rays. Encouraged, Java Sea Charters will be organising such events on a more regular basis, with these repeat trips including monitoring the development of the recently built reef.

Monitoring has been sadly lacking in the past – a common problem in Indonesia’s national parks – so it is crucial that it is kept up now that remedial efforts are underway on the reefs. The locals will hopefully be encouraged by signs of building alternative incomes and will resist the temptation to do more than just fish on a subsistence level.