Saving marine life in the Coral Triangle

Posted: 12 February 2011

Author: Michael Travers

Covering a vast area of ocean surrounding the nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon islands lies one of the richest and most bio-diverse areas of the planet, the Coral Triangle. 

The Coral Triangle covers a complex mix of diverse habitats – from river estuaries and mangrove forests, to sea grass beds and coral reef ecosystems – and they all support a huge array of marine biodiversity. It covers almost 1.6 billion acres, an area about half the size of the United States, and it is home to over 126 million people. Its vast marine resources support not just the livelihoods of the local coastal communities but also millions more worldwide.

Fishing net showing diversity of coral reef fish
Fishing net showing diversity of coral reef fish. Photo © WWF

Like a lot of places, this abundance of marine life is at risk due to unsustainable fishing, poorly planned development, pollution, a growing population and the effects of climate change. WWF is trying to stem the tide by developing sustainable solutions that will both benefit local communities and businesses and save one of the most diverse marine habitats on Earth for future generations. In her role heading the World Wildlife Fund’s Coral Triangle Programme, Lida Pet-Soede has a vast territory to cover and has only 200 colleagues to administer it. They work hard. They walk the beaches where turtles nest, they monitor the harbours where the fish are landed, they seek to educate local peoples, all the way up to liaising with the heads of national governments to get the message across.

“In developed nations the general public know what is going on in their seas because they take monitoring very seriously and the process is quite transparent,” she says. Here in a country like Indonesia no one can really see beneath the surface and there is a lot of bad data collection. People don’t realize how far things have diminished and motivated change is missing because people haven’t started to feel the effects yet. “Seafood is very important to the local people, and they have no other choice but to fish. It is all they know,” explains Lida.

Releasing baby turtles
Releasing baby turtles. Photo © WWF

It is not just the local people who are being affected by habitat destruction. Developed nations are going to depend more and more on fish from this part of the world as fish stocks in other oceans dry up and go past their points of sustainable production. A large part of Lida’s role is to bring governments and private sectors, fisheries and communities together so people can maintain their livelihoods and lifestyles into the future.

“We facilitate governments who have realized that there are over 100 million people in the region who wake up every morning by the ocean as their number one method of nutrition. They don’t have a lot of options or education to do anything else. I therefore advise and help governments to do this, which in many cases only requires the implementation of existing laws, which are very strong but are not enforced.”

Food industry influence

NGOs like WWF are no longer seen as the scary hippies shouting death and destruction from the sidelines. They are increasingly being seen as an integral part of the information gathering process. “In the four years I have been in this position a lot of big companies have started coming to us for advice,” explains Lida. She strives to make connections with all the things that local people cannot influence by themselves. For example, the bringing together of the market and the large food-producing companies like Mars and Unilever, two of the largest pet food producers in the world, as well as big supermarkets like Carrefour and Wal-Mart also ask them to provide them with sustainable marine products. Their partnerships with seafood producers and suppliers has grown exponentially and it goes all the way down the supply chain to the fishermen who catch it each day.”

“The sourcing of fish for both human consumption and cat food has now become important to be seen as sustainable and so my work has now become to link the large consumer market who are asking for more responsible seafood with the local producers and helping them to deliver." “Ironically it is so successful that one of the big challenges is that we don’t have enough people on the ground to support the process,” she says. “But what makes me happy working here is the leadership that is being taken in this part of the world. There are a lot of local businesses turning onto the sustainable approach and a lot of change going on in the way people perceive the issues; right from the top to the bottom. I just wonder if it’s happening fast enough,” she says, “and how we can speed it up.”

Consumer support

Leda has seen a groundswell of popular opinion for what they are doing coming mainly from the European consumers, but even in Asia there is evidence of a popular movement towards sustainability. “In Singapore we have had a lot of pro bono support from some top advertising agencies who have done a lot of consumer research on our behalf. The results have shown that in the 30-45 age group there really is a lot of welcoming support for the environmental changes and need for sustainability.”

Tuna catch, Coral Triangle
Tuna catch, Coral Triangle. Photo © WWF

Of course there are the big emerging nations like India and China looming on the horizon with ever-increasing middle classes and huge appetites for seafood delicacies. How does this bode for the future of the Coral Triangle fisheries? “This is interesting because despite the fact that developed countries like Singapore and Hong Kong have an awareness of sustainability, governments are reluctant to interfere in the market place. In China, however, it is a centralized government that once they make a decision it is implemented immediately so if they were to do that for fisheries sustainability it would filter through rather quickly.”

“We will soon be completing a scenario analysis where we are looking at how as Chinese wealth increases how will their consumption patterns evolve,” says Lida. “We can then make assumptions on what demands for seafood will be like in ten years time and then with this information both China and countries like Indonesia can see it as a business opportunity.”

With opportunities such as this, nations will hopefully realize that if they want to keep being supplied and supplying respectively there will need to be a product to sell. Countries also need to feed their own people so they need to seriously think about food security for their own citizens, not just competing with others by paying higher prices for dwindling resources. This will create a strong argument for governments to improvement of stocks through aquaculture programs, fisheries management and investment so there is less wastage and more sustainability.

NGO workers have to be, by their very nature, optimistic. This is the driving force behind the conscience-led organizations that exist solely on the generosity of others for their continued existence. “The longer you work in the field and the more you learn it gives you a lot of satisfaction to see the changes taking place,” says Lida, “At the same time it makes you realize that the problems are actually way bigger that you could have imagined but you have to be optimistic.

“One thing that makes me positive about the future of the region is its physical structure,” says Lida. “The sheer volume of water that flushes through every day from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean and vice versa, through relatively narrow channels, brings so many nutrients to the food chain and helps to creates such an abundance of life and resources, that nothing is going to change that. We have a constant renewal from nature so if we as people can do things just a little bit different, then maybe we will be ok.” Let’s hope she is right.

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