By Misty Herrin
A team of top marine scientists embarked on a journey to explore uncharted waters in the Coral Triangle, a region in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific that harbors an astounding 76 percent of the world’s coral species.
They may well have found the richest treasure trove of marine life on Earth.
“We call the Coral Triangle the ‘epicenter of coral reef diversity’,” says Rod Salm, director of the Conservancy’s Tropical Marine Conservation Program in the Asia Pacific Region. “This area could be the epicenter of the epicenter.”
Discovery of New Species…and More
The scientists believe that the Indonesian island of Halmahera — the focus of the expedition — is encircled by reefs teeming with one of the highest concentration of coral and reef fish species anywhere.
The island’s location and shape provided promising clues, according to Salm. It lies south of a massive ocean gyre – or eddy – that gathers up and concentrates coral larvae, which are then swept to the island by a strong current system.
Because the island is shaped like four fanned out peninsulas, it has a lot of coastline with a wide range of habitats. And complexity of habitat types often leads to high biological diversity.
“It’s highly likely that we'll discover species never before documented by science,” says Alison Green, a Conservancy senior marine scientist also on the expedition predicted before the expedition. “That’s an incredibly exciting prospect. But the expedition is about much more than that."
The group’s ambitious charter: build a data picture of the island’s marine habitats, the species that rely on them and the threats they face. As with Conservancy projects around the globe, this data will allow the Conservancy to create science-based conservation blueprints for the area.
The expedition — which is co-sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International (CI) — included 16 experts from these organizations as well as Indonesian partners and the World Wildlife Fund. Salm and Green were joined by Andreas Muljadi, a scientist with The Nature Conservancy in Indonesia.
Three Weeks on the Ocean Together — for Science
The expedition team spent three weeks on a live-aboard boat, circumnavigating Halmahera, diving, going ashore and sharing results.
“Putting such a diverse group of scientists in close proximity, day in and day out, for a month paves the way for very close collaboration,” says Green. “The conservation value of local and international scientists working together is incalculable.”
“We didn’t know exactly what we would find,” she adds. “We predicted there may be some damage from dynamite fishing and we had reports of outbreaks of the coral eating starfish, crown-of-thorns. But I was confident that we were going to find some spectacular marine life.”
The experts divided into three teams:
- One team, which includesd top coral and fish experts, focused on assessing biodiversity — cataloguing species and identifying new species unique to the Halmahera waters.
- A coral reef monitoring team led by Green conducted underwater counts of key fish species and coral communities. This survey can tell scientists about reef health and how resilient reefs can be in the face of climate change.
- Finally, a landing team went go ashore to coastal villages and met with residents to learn how local people use and value the resources the reefs provide — information that can help identify good opportunities for conservation and the development of alternative livelihoods. The shore team will also include an Indonesian scientist, who will survey turtle populations and the beaches used for nesting.
By targeting key places and species, the teams hoped to gather the information necessary to drive a 360-degree approach to preserving these irreplaceable marine resources.
Follow the Expedition and its Discoveries!
“I’m anxious to hear what they discovered,” says Rili Djohani, from the Conservancy’s Indonesia Program. “For the past five years, my team has been working on projects that came out of an expedition like this around the Raja Ampat Islands. The success we’re having there can be traced back to the rigorous research and sound recommendations of the science team.”
“Halmahera is the missing piece of the puzzle,” explains Salm. “We know about the importance of the Raja Ampat islands to the East and other locations to the West. My greatest hope is that this expedition will not only tell us how to preserve Halmahera, but also give us more ideas for how to help coral reefs survive the impacts of climate change – here and across the globe.”
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