Indonesia leads the way in restoring coral reefs, scientists say

Good News Notes:

With wide-scale deforestation, some of the world’s most polluted cities and rivers, and wildfires so vast they often blanket neighbouring countries in smog, Indonesia is one of the world’s most high-profile environmental offenders.

But when it comes to coral reefs, the rapidly industrialising Southeast Asian nation is doing more to restore the delicate marine ecosystems than any other country on the Earth, according to a soon-to-be-released survey, which was shown to Al Jazeera ahead of publication.

The study shows Indonesia has more than 500 coral reef restoration projects.

“In recent years there has been a huge effort to restore reefs all over the world. But in terms of the number of documented projects, Indonesia is the world leader,” said Tries Razak, scientist researching coral reef restoration at Java’s IPB University who led the survey. “It’s an amazing achievement and goes hand-in-hand with an ambitious government plan to create 30 million hectares of Marine Protected Areas to ensure coral reefs in Indonesia do not disappear in our generation.”

The findings coincide with a report released by Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network earlier this month showing global warming helped wipe out 14 percent of the world’s coral reefs between 2009 and 2018.

Southeast Asia’s so-called Coral Triangle, where Indonesia is situated and which is home to nearly a third of the world’s coral reefs, was not hit as hard by the warming waters and in some cases showed recovery, the report found.

“Indonesia is the one place in the world where most of the research and restoration has been done to stabilise underwater rubble since the early 1990s,” said Queensland University’s Peter Mumby, a leading researcher on the resilience of coral reef ecosystems.

“They are far ahead of Australia.”

Expert advice

Australia, which is about to kick-start a $72m plan to repair extensive climate-change-spurred damage to the Great Barrier Reef, is looking to Indonesia for advice.

“Essentially we are asking what role scaled-up restoration can play in making our reefs healthier in the future? But as we haven’t invested much in the space until now, we are turning to researchers in Indonesia and studying the methods they’ve developed over the past 10 years,” said Mumby.

Among the researchers is Andrew Taylor, a marine biologist from Canada based in the Penida Archipelago, three small islands southwest of Bali where scuba divers from around the world come to marvel at ocean sunfish, the world’s heaviest bony fish which can weigh as much as a tonne.

The islands’ reefs are under stress from sewage runoff from tourism developments, extractive industries like fishing and seaweed farming and the construction of a sizeable new ferry port in a picturesque channel.

In 2018, Taylor started a pilot coral restoration project funded by his non-governmental organisation, Blue Corner Marine Research, on Nusa Penida, the largest of the three islands.

“We chose this area because it’s one the areas where the coral is most impacted,” he said. “With so many boats anchoring and dragging fishing nets, the reefs have turned to rubble.”

Spanning 300 metres (984 feet), the project features hard corals tied to 400 metal frames coated with epoxy.

“The idea is to put some kind of structure down that provides a base for coral to grow,” Taylor explained. “Within a couple of years they were completely covered in coral with lots of fish hanging about. Later we improved it by rolling out chicken wire between the frames to stabilise the rubble. After about a year, sponges and soft coral began regenerating while the wire disintegrated. Looking at the before and after shots, it’s like night and day.”

Reefs and jobs

On nearby Bali, the $7.5m Indonesian Coral Reef Garden (ICRG) was devised to regenerate coral reefs damaged by runaway tourism development and river pollution over the past 50 years while providing temporary work for 10,000 people who lost their jobs in tourism during the pandemic.

The Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry, which funded the project, claims new reefs could also create new jobs in marine tourism in the future.

The largest coral restoration project in the world, ICRG is made up of just under one million structural units sunk at five different parts on the island.

Work began in January in Lovina, a once-bustling tourist district on Bali’s north coast where 250 locals were hired to build 1,000 ‘bio-rocks’ – large concrete and metal bells featuring holes to attach hard coral. The project’s final section, completed last month, employed 1,000 locals in Nusa Dua on the south of the island to build 8,000 steel pipes, each 2 metres (6.5 feet) long, as substructures for coral gardens….”

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