It is said that for citizens of a maritime country, most Indonesians know little about their marine environment. The sea is only seen as an passageway between islands, with little realization that beneath the vast stretches of water there lies a diversity of species that is as rich, if not richer, than that on land.
In 1999, the government established the Ministry of Maritime Affairs, now the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, to watch over the nation’s various sea-related business. But it has not proved easy to socialize maritime issues with people in this archipelagic country. Government programs are still largely land-oriented.
Indonesia initiated the international Coral Triangle Initiative and hosted the World Ocean Conference last year in Manado, but knowledge about coral reefs and their preservation has yet to reach significant levels.
On the occasion of this year’s Earth Day, a number of nongovernmental organizations, funding agencies, community groups and private companies invite people to take another look at Indonesia’s seas — with coral reefs, as one of the most important links in the marine ecosystem, being given the main focus. This day, or as we call it, “Coral Day,” is when we can all contribute to the protection and preservation of coral reefs.
The objective of Coral Day is simple: to encourage people to act now, without waiting for a program or institution to initiate efforts. Everyone can contribute according to his or her own strengths.
It is a sad fact that coral reefs are the most vulnerable environment to temperature increases brought on by global warming. Based on observations by Reef Check Indonesia in 2005, coral in the sea near Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport experienced extensive bleaching. In June 2009, along Bali’s north coast from Pemuteran to Amed, Reef Check found coral bleaching of up to 40 percent, caused directly by an increase in water temperature.
Corals are organisms that live symbiotically with networks of single-celled algae to form beautiful coral reefs. The algae produce food for the corals, and the corals in turn give the algae a place to live. Environmental pressures, such as pollution or increases in water temperature, can cause the algae to die, which then causes the coral network to perish and eventually lose its color, hence the term bleaching.
Preliminary evaluations by experts at last year’s Global Biodiversity Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, showed that a hectare of coral reef could generate between $130,000 and $1.2 million annually. The fascinating beauty of the coral reefs is what attracts thousands of tourists every year to Bali, Wakatobi, Raja Ampat and many other dive spots across the country.
But why do average people need to worry about coral reefs that live hidden beneath the waves? Aside from preventing coastal abrasion, coral reefs are home to most of the sea creatures that we consume. As our coral reefs begin to disappear, so will our sources of food from the sea.
Before the late 1980s, Serangan, an island village not far from Kuta, attracted many tourists because of its rich coral reef and resident turtle population. The relatively untouched coral and sea grass was a paradise for innumerable species of fish. But then a large-scale reclamation project, intended to save the island from coastal abrasion, ironically ended the area’s marine utopia. The project damaged the delicate coral that supported the island’s fishermen and drastically changed the underwater landscape.
Fish catches in Serangan diminished and turtles, the star attraction of the island, left the area. In facing the man-made “disaster,” fishermen did not just accept their fate. Along with a number of nongovernmental organizations and the government, 36 people calling themselves the Karya Segara Fishermen’s Group took the initiative to restore their village. Today, it has developed into one of the most active groups working to restore coral reefs and to distribute income to local fishermen by cultivating coral. Their success has also been followed by other fishermen who have seen the return of fish in their area.
Coral Day invites the public to care, get involved and contribute. Caring doesn’t mean that everyone has to plant coral, but just know enough to care that every coral counts. If we throw away rubbish carelessly or pollute the sea, we place coral reefs in jeopardy. One patch of coral may die today, but before we realize it a larger loss may deprive areas like Serangan of their livelihoods.
Hapsoro is program director of Telapak, a community-based group of environmental activists.