Magazine Articles

In the Heart of the Ocean

October/November 2014

Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago is a global epicenter of corals, sharks and other marine life. The people who call it home want to keep it that way.

On the surface, Jaam Island looks a lot like Gilligan’s Island: small, idyllic and lonely, covered with coconut and banana trees that offer shade to a single rustic shack. But just beneath the lagoon water’s clear glaze, baby blacktip sharks skitter through the white-sand shallows in search of a meal. A few yards farther offshore, the underwater scene turns into a Technicolor metropolis. Sea turtles and Napoleon wrasse as long as an arm cruise over every conceivable type of coral. Smaller reef fish school in an array of too-sharp-to-be-real blues, yellows, oranges and reds. Jaam is one of more than 1,800 islands that make up Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago, home to some of the world’s most vibrant assortments of marine life.

Raja Ampat—which translates to Four Kings—is the biological heart of the Coral Triangle, a roughly three-sided ocean expanse bordered by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Solomon Islands. But the coral habitat in Raja Ampat took a beating for decades. Swaths of dead-white coral—each 10 to 20 yards wide—still pock reefs throughout the regency. In places, the stone-like branches have been knocked to the sea floor. These are the signs that poisonous potassium cyanide and homemade bombs were used to catch fish here.

Not long ago, Jaam and other islands served as outposts for bands of roaming fishermen with no stake in the area, who introduced new and damaging techniques to catch as many fish as quickly as possible. They dragged nets for anchovies, targeted grouper spawning grounds and harvested shark fins en masse. Local fishermen in this impoverished region often saw no choice but to join in on the action.

“I would catch fish to feed my family,” says Ali Oherenan, a 31-year-old fisherman from the village of Harapan Jaya. “But for money, we would use an air compressor to dive for lobster, sea cucumber.” Using long rubber hoses connected to the boat-mounted compressor, Oherenan and six or seven others could keep themselves breathing underwater for hours at a time. “We would go out for a week and take everything we could catch,” he says. It was not uncommon for such crews to pick reefs clean.

Rod Salm, a Nature Conservancy marine scientist, saw firsthand the effects of widespread fishing pressure in Indonesia. During the early 1980s, he says, “whenever you went into the water, you had sharks on your mind.” Later in the decade, the sightings became less frequent. “And by the 1990s and 2000s, we almost never saw sharks on the reef.”

In late 2002, Salm led a group of researchers from the Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia and other organizations in a joint effort to assess the status of Raja Ampat’s marine resources. The assessment confirmed some of their fears but also gave them reason to hope: Despite noticeable declines in stocks of shark, grouper and many commercially important fish, says Salm, “the numbers of species of corals we were seeing were off the charts.”

Raja Ampat’s reefs had not been as damaged by commercial fishing as those in other Indonesian regencies.“We realized that Raja Ampat is special,” says Salm. “It is the heart of the heart of marine biodiversity for the world.”

Today, a remarkable shift is under way in Raja Ampat. The regency government has begun employing progressive management strategies for its fisheries. In 2013, it banned shark and manta ray fishing across its 17,000 square miles of ocean territory. Fishermen like Oherenan are joining local conservation patrols—Oherenan’s is based out of that shack on Jaam Island—to guard new marine protected areas.

Indonesia remains a leading supplier of shark fins and fish. But in Raja Ampat, residents are changing the rules of the game so they can preserve their fisheries—and their way of life.

“It was the older fishermen who were more interested in conservation, because they could remember how much better the fishing was here many years ago.”


A regency of Indonesia's West Papua Province, Raja Ampat sits at the interface of the Indian and Pacific oceans, whose currents have created a repository for more than 1,400 species of fish. That puts the area’s biodiversity on par with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, an area eight times larger. Raja Ampat also hosts about 75 percent of the world’s known species of coral, seven species of dolphin and eight species of whale. Researchers in this remote island chain add to the list of species every year.

Even though Indonesia is the fourth most populous country on the planet, Raja Ampat remains something of a wild frontier. Most of its 42,000-plus residents inhabit isolated villages that range from about 150 to 1,000 people. They live on a combination of subsistence fishing, small scale agriculture and government-issued rice, although the introduction of aquaculture (mostly pearl farms) and dive tourism has started to diversify some village economies.

Commercial fishing in these waters expanded rapidly after West Papua became an Indonesian province in 1969. Since national fishing laws allow the country’s fleet to operate anywhere within its maritime borders, Raja Ampat was suddenly opened to fishing on a scale that had not existed before. The effects were soon apparent. Fish and shark populations plummeted in the more accessible areas of Indonesia’s waters.

In 2002, even as researchers marveled at the extraordinary vitality remaining in Raja Ampat, conservationists knew they needed to move quickly. Further exploitation would threaten the coral reefs’ ability to maintain such biodiversity. The assessment identified critical spots to protect, such as fish spawning areas and places where the underwater geography supported the widest diversity of coral species.

Within a few months, the Conservancy and the nonprofit group Conservation International began drawing up plans to collaborate with the island districts of Raja Ampat to create a network of marine protected areas. Dive teams marked out transects, collected data, and developed a baseline understanding of the fish and coral populations.

By late 2006, the government of Raja Ampat had put more than 25 percent of the regency’s waters into six marine protected areas near the major island systems. The new regency law, supported by customary rules known as adat that are endorsed by elders, closed these areas to nonlocal fishermen and prohibited fishing with commercial-scale vessels, such as long-liners and lift-net trawlers. But other decisions about fisheries management within the marine protected area, like no-take zones, had to be made at the village level.

The Conservancy focused on the southern communities of Misool and Kofiau while Conservation International started working in the central and northern parts of Raja Ampat. As outreach workers began to survey fishermen and to meet one-on-one with residents and leaders, they were greeted with a lot of skepticism.

“When people started talking about conservation, my community was split,” recalls Oherenan, the patrolman at Jaam Island, which lies within the Misool marine protected area. In his village, Oherenan and many younger fishermen suspected conservationists wanted to shut down all fishing in the marine protected areas. “It was the older fishermen who were more interested in conservation, because they could remember how much better the fishing was here many years ago.”

Irwan Pasambo, then the Conservancy community outreach officer, made regular rounds of the villages in the Misool district. Pasambo says that he and his colleagues found themselves repeating the same message to wary residents: Marine protected areas are intended to help restore species. Only the highest-priority reefs and spawning grounds would be closed—and given enough time, the closures would help local fishermen achieve better catches on the open fishing grounds.
Pasambo and his colleagues shared data with villagers as information was collected from reef monitoring and surveys of fishing boat crews (including outsiders who continued to operate illegally in the protected areas). “Based on the fishing methods and number of boats, we were able to estimate that more than 90 percent of the fish mass caught in Misool was being taken away by the commercial boats,” says Pasambo. In Kofiau, the number was about 70 percent. Those figures, he says, rankled villagers, who typically saw very little income from the migrant fishing operators.

As residents started to understand the potential benefits of marine protected areas, they were encouraged to develop their own set of selective no-fishing zones. Representatives of each village helped draw up maps to show the areas they wanted to protect.

The no-take zones were finalized in Kofiau in late 2011 and in Misool roughly a year later. In early 2013, with the added support of Misool Eco Resort and the conservation group Shark Savers, Raja Ampat declared its waters to be a shark and manta ray sanctuary—the first in Indonesia and one of only a few in the world.

Local people had embraced better fisheries management. But outside fishing interests still posed a threat.

Read a travel primer on getting to remote Raja Ampat.

After the marine protected areas were established in 2006, the Conservancy began looking for ways to keep illegal fishermen out—no small task considering the protected areas in Misool and Kofiau total more than 2,000 square miles and are separated by a full day’s travel by boat. Early efforts involved deploying a large live-aboard boat, named FSS Imbekwan, to serve as a mobile surveillance station. The crew coordinated with the Indonesian navy, local police and the fisheries agency to run patrols. But the area proved too large for the sparsely staffed groups to be effective. Commercial fishing boats were still a common sight.

“After a few years, we devised a new method of patrolling that would involve the local people,” says Pasambo, who coordinates some of the rangers in Misool. In 2011, the Conservancy hired and trained local fishermen to survey their own waters in smaller boats.

Each patrol group includes one representative from each village. The group visits a designated sector within the marine protected area at random intervals. Wearing matching jerseys and piloting fiberglass-hulled boats with modern outboard engines, the patrolmen look as official as anything a fisherman would expect to encounter in Raja Ampat. Their duties include collecting data on the catches of fishermen they meet, and observing and reporting illegal activities, such as blast fishing, netting, or harvesting sharks and rays.

In the beginning, says patrolman and community monitor Ramli Rumbara, the groups spent most of their time talking to fishermen about what fishing methods were allowed and handing out maps to show them where they could and couldn’t fish. He says that most fishermen will move out of no-take zones to avoid any trouble; if they refuse, the marine police are called.

There are occasional clashes: Fishermen from outside the area sometimes present falsified paperwork claiming that they purchased the rights to fish in no-take zones. And according to rangers in Kofiau, at least one patrol was turned away by some blast fishermen who started throwing their homemade bombs at the approaching boat. No one was injured. The fishermen fled the scene before authorities could arrive.

Still, the presence of the local patrols has yielded a significant change inside the marine protected areas. Pasambo’s records show that when the local patrols started, they found illegal fishing activity on 16 percent of their outings. By 2013, the number had dropped to 7 percent.

Read more about how villages manage their fisheries.

At a research station in the Kofiau Villageof Deer, a group of divers is staring intently at an assortment of fish. Nothing unusual about that—except that they’re on land, and the fish are plastic cutouts, propped up against palm trees, rocks, dive equipment and a fishing boat that was confiscated by the local police.

The divers will spend the next two weeks helping a Conservancy scientist estimate biomass in the marine protected areas’ reefs, but first they have to take a test: Standing about 10 feet away from the cutouts, each person tries to estimate every fish’s length to within 2 inches and then writes the numbers down on a clipboard.

“You must score above 75 percent accuracy,” says Purwanto, the Conservancy’s lead technical advisor in West Papua, who will manage the group. Anything below that will relegate a diver to hauling equipment for the entire session. Purwanto checks the divers’ sheets: They all pass. His team will consist of two university students, several men from the local patrols, a community outreach consultant and two fishermen from Deer who have never done this kind of work before.

“It’s interesting to work with a mixed group like this,” Purwanto says later. “While the fishermen don’t have the same level of education as the students, they have far more experience identifying the fish that live in this area. They know the marine life here very well.”

Over the next two weeks, the team conducts 28 dives at several reef sites the Conservancy has been studying for the past few years. Two divers stretch out a 50-meter measuring tape. Two more swim slowly with clipboards and record the fish species and quantities that they observe near the measuring tape. Another pair of divers records the types of corals they see.

For Purwanto, teaching villagers to conduct their own reef monitoring is critical to the success of this work. “Eventually they can start to do this for themselves and make good decisions to manage their own fishing grounds. They won’t have to wait for someone like me to come around.”

When the data are analyzed, Purwanto sees some reassuring trends: Fish biomass is generally on an upswing. Small numbers of groupers are returning to spawning grounds that had been empty for years. And three times as many sharks—mostly pups—are observed in this monitoring round than were seen in the previous one. Those young sharks, he notes proudly, represent the first generation in decades to live in this area without the constant, deadly pressure of finning.

His data reinforce what local fishermen have already noticed: The fish are starting to rebound in the protected areas. Instead of hiring themselves out to roaming fishing crews, residents are now selling their fish to itinerant wholesalers and taking home bigger profits on smaller catches—because now they are the only legitimate source for fish caught in the marine protected areas.

"This is a cradle of biodiversity that’s also the livelihood of thousands of people.” 


At sunset in the Misool Village of Harapan Jaya, where patrolman Oherenan grew up, small signs of change are all around. As darkness approaches, the village’s generator kicks on, and single light bulbs illuminate the tin-roofed bungalows. A few homes have tube-style TV sets, around which groups of adults gather to watch the news, sports or soap operas. Outside, teenagers huddle around the glow of a cell phone to watch a music video. They stand in front of a house whose small front room has been converted into a convenience store, where the owners sell candy, cigarettes and cans of soda through the window. Village commerce, even on this modest scale, is becoming more common.

At the far end of the village, new cabins have been constructed on a promontory to accommodate prospective tourists; the owner is having his sons trained as dive masters. Sharks, sea turtles and rays are worth more to the community alive than dead.

In 2007, fewer than 1,000 visitors came to Raja Ampat. But as word of the area’s marine sanctuaries has spread among sport divers, the number of visitors has risen steadily. More than 8,000 came in 2013. That’s good news for the government’s newly created marine conservation division: Some of its operating funds will come from the entry passes that the regency requires tourists to purchase.

In June, the Conservancy and Conservation International began handing off their projects in the marine protected areas to the government. The local fishing patrols, outreach programs, and even boats and research stations will eventually become part of the conservation division. Both groups have advised the regency in developing the division as a quasi-governmental entity that can accept financial backing from nongovernmental sources.

“It’s very similar to how some hospitals are run,” says Gondan Renosari, the Conservancy’s marine program director for Indonesia. “These are government institutions and receive budget from the government, but they also have the leeway to raise funds to improve operations.”

The Conservancy will continue to offer as much advisory support as needed to keep the marine protected areas intact, says Renosari. It is working toward the creation of a trust fund that could use investment revenues to provide sustainable funding for conservation work.

“This area is changing,” says Renosari. “We don’t want to stand in the way of growth, but we want to make sure Raja Ampat is able to manage this fishery in a way that is sustainable. This is a cradle of biodiversity that’s also the livelihood of thousands of people.”