Raja Ampat – The benefits of enforcement

By John Tanzer. Photos by Robert Delfs & Tommy Schultz.

Sitting these last days in a modern, somewhat stark meeting room in chilly Washington DC seems like another world, in another time, compared to the setting and experiences I have just left. Two weeks previously, my surroundings couldn’t have been more different. I was in the Raja Ampat area of West Papua, Indonesia, cruising and diving this remote and beautiful seascape aboard the charming, fit for purpose vessel the Seven Seas.

Despite the starkly contrasting location and context, the topic on the agenda at the Washington meeting was very relevant to the experiences I had recently had on my trip to Raja Ampat. Gathered in the serious room are some of the leaders of various NGOs and science organizations. The central topic for discussion was how to grapple with the insidious and all too widespread ‘paper parks’ that litter our oceans. Too often declared with much fanfare but often lacking the protection and management to deliver strong outcomes. Also, the ever-controversial topic of whether MPAs (marine protected areas) can actually benefit fisheries sustainability was inevitably bobbing to the surface.

As I listened to the discussions range back and forth on what should, or should not, be labelled as a MPA and how governments should be encouraged to identify them by use and level of protection and must implement them, my mind kept drifting back to the wild but fragile beauty and marine resources of Raja Ampat. Most particularly I kept thinking about a number of the dive sites where the diversity, size and numbers of valuable food fish was very high – certainly higher than I had seen in other coral reef areas of the pacific and Indian ocean perhaps outside some of the highly protected areas ‘no take’ areas of the Great Barrier Reef.

Now I had promised my daughter who accompanied me on the trip that I would not spend time focused on work but really take time out to enjoy the place and she asked that I not bore the people on board with discussions about ocean management etc, etc. I must admit that while I tried and think I did ok (its all relative given that a number of the passengers are way more expert in marine matters than me and certainly much more experienced divers) there was much to learn that was of relevance to my work in marine conservation. It is difficult to entirely disconnect when your day job is ocean conservation and you are visiting one of the most fascinating and diverse marine areas on the planet. Anyway, when you are below the water I reckon its ok to, probably impossible not to, mix work, pleasure, mystery and magic.

I must admit to being fascinated by fish and their interactions with habitats since I was a boy. Growing up adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef I gravitated towards coral reef fishes and as a keen fisherman it was especially the highly sought-after coral trouts, snappers, cods, wrasses and emperors that I became most interested in. Later, while I was working in the Great Barrier Reef I had a job surveying populations of various coral trouts in different locations. Now whenever I dive on a coral reef I automatically start looking out for these species their numbers, size and behavior – so it was in Raja Ampat.

I loved dives where we got up close to mantas and sharks but really my best dives were those which were very ‘fishy’. I am pleased to say on this trip there was plenty of those.

One last bit of background, over the last 20 years or so, I have observed and at times been directly involved in, the debate of whether protected areas can contribute to protecting and rebuilding fish populations both within and outside the boundaries. It’s too often been one of those ‘fault line’ issues that serves to distract energy and expertise away from getting on with implementing highly protected areas and instead has needlessly muddied the water around how MPAs should be put in place urgently to protect ecosystem resilience and provide a range of benefits for people – not least off all food but also jobs and livelihoods associated with the large and growing marine tourism industry.

One key of course is to design the location and size of the MPAs well to incorporate the interactions between various habitats, the biology of the associated fish and connectivity (see e.g. coral reef highway). However just as, if not more, important is to get in place effective enforcement to stop poaching and habitat destruction. Also, somewhat obviously the key to effective management is the level of support and engagement of local communities and stakeholders such as tourism.

I would say every dive I did on the Seven Seas trip is what I would call a very good coral reef dive.  I estimate 90% of the reef areas held good populations of resident pelagic fish such as various trevallies, Spanish and other mackerels, barracudas and occasional tunas.  Unfortunately, I missed several days diving due to an ear infection but on a couple of these days I did manage a snorkel which given the great visibility can be just as informative for most of the fishes I am talking about. However, in a number of the places (and I am purposefully not going to reveal the specific locations) the coral trout, (large) cod, Maori Wrasse and snapper size and population densities were as good as I had seen in several of the highly protected areas in the Great Barrier Reef. Moreover, the absence of fishing line, the behavior of the larger fish in these places including the vulnerable Barramundi Cod indicated scant line fishing or spearing had occurred in recent times. Why were some sites less fished and so prolific and others of similar geography less so?On board were a several very experienced folk who know the area and sites very well and also know the level of protection and enforcement that is in place.

So after quizzing them it seemed clear to me there was a strong correlation between those sites where I saw really healthy populations of these key demersal reef predators and where strong compliance arrangements were in place. I also asked them about places where I was I was unable to dive – again the same story. Not surprising I guess, but good to see.

What is really interesting is that in most of these places the strong compliance is a result of the activity and investment by tourism activities – liveaboard vessels being regularly near sites but also local eco resorts which in partnerships with local communities jointly manage these areas. It’s the jobs and livelihoods generated by these protected areas that is guaranteeing their protection. Based on the research and fisheries behavior I have seen in the Great Barrier Reef I do not doubt that these protected areas are contributing to the availability of fish in connected places. It would be great to see some local biological and economic assessment of this capacity of these areas to act as ‘fish pumps’ to open areas.

Meanwhile it is clear these sites and the diverse ecosystems they hold are worth a good deal of money to the local economy. Marine protected areas are most valued where they pay their way. Well protected they will continue to support the resilience of the magnificent reefs of Raja Ampat as well as the wellbeing of communities into the future.

John Tanzer,
February 2018


John grew up alongside the Great Barrier Reef in North Queensland, Australia where he developed a deep and lifelong interest in the marine environment. He originally trained in geography and economics and James Cook University. He also holds a Masters degree in environmental law from the Australian National university.

During his career he has worked in both terrestrial and marine environmental management and gained experience in research, field management, strategic policy and organisation management. John`s focus since the mid-nineties has been marine and coastal environments, particularly fisheries and marine protected area management. Of special interest is the role of protected areas in contributing to fisheries sustainability.

He was Chairman and Chief Executive of Queensland Fisheries Management Authority before becoming Executive Director of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

John has served as Director of WWF’s Global Marine Program for the last 5 years, raising the profile of marine conservation around the globe but with a particular focus on tropical coastal areas. His career has been defined by developing partnerships and strong advocacy for community engagement in conservation.

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