By Rod Salm
I have left the Halmahera team with heavy heart but a head full of happy memories. Chief amongst these is the great team of Indonesian and international participants whose energy and enthusiasm, curiosity and collegiality are unflagging. And we have discovered wondrous things, including new species: at least two fishes, one mantis shrimp, a potential new sea cucumber, and possibly new corals.
We have discovered reefs in great condition, supporting exquisite coral gardens and corals ranging in age from youngsters less than a couple of years old to others exceeding 1,000 years in age. We have seen damage – extensive damage – but also vigorous recovery. Yes, they have been hit hard, but they are bouncing back too.
As we suspected, the corals and fishes around Halmahera are extremely diverse. But, more than that, they are showing good reproduction, connectivity and recruitment around much of the island and strong recovery. These are key elements of resilience. But the corals also show a large range in sizes from young to old. This tells us that there is regular good recruitment and excellent prospects for recovery from damage. Some of the oldest corals we saw might even have settled in the time of Jesus, but certainly during the life of the Prophet Muhammad.
Its really sobering to think how societies have evolved and the world has changed since the time of those two great influences on the world and that there are corals around Halmahera that have lived through that time of change. It boggles the imagination.
Change is now accelerated by the demands of burgeoning human populations and our influences on natural resources and climate. Addressing the impacts of those changes and adapting the way we manage our reefs and other natural resources is essential now in our rapidly changing world. We start by trying to build the resilience of the areas we manage so that they can absorb and bounce back from the ravages of change. The assessments we have been doing are just the start of the process.
The Halmahera expedition helped move that process forward.
The convoluted shape of Halmahera, called the “Spider Island” by some, and the pouring of the Indonesia Throughflow around the island generate complex local currents that result in good connectivity, strong recovery, and excellent survival prospects for the coral reef communities there. They may also cause mixing of the water column that helps to keep temperatures fairly stable. This reduces heat stress linked to global warming on the corals and so contributes to their resilience.
Halmahera’s reefs conform in so many respects to others around them in the Coral Triangle. This gives us hope for them surviving climate change and is truly a missing piece of the puzzle that we have now found and which this voyage of discovery has helped us to put together.
We also gleaned important new information about how local people in Halmahera use and perceive marine resources – and that will shape future conservation action. There is increasing awareness in the remotest places about the cost of destructive fishing methods.
If that alone is not enough to fill anyone with optimism for the future of the special marine environments and species here, there is also a growing movement of professionals trained and active in marine science and conservation, as well as individuals who are passionate about marine conservation, enthusiastic about their work, and consummate field workers.
I was heartened and privileged to share the last couple of weeks with just such a group. Looking back over 35 years of visits and work in Indonesia, it is the change in people’s perceptions and growing interest and capacity for marine conservation that is truly inspiring.
Rod Salm is the Conservancy’s Director of Marine Conservation Programs in the Asia Pacific.
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April 11, 2012