Two recent expeditions led by Conservation International (CI) to the heart of Asia's "Coral Triangle" discovered dozens of new species of marine life including epaulette sharks, "flasher" wrasse and reef-building coral, confirming the region as the Earth's richest seascape.
The unmatched marine biodiversity of the Bird's Head Seascape, named for the shape of the distinctive peninsula on the northwestern end of Indonesia's Papua province, includes more than 1,200 species of fish and almost 600 species of reef-building (scleractinian) coral, or 75 percent of the world's known total.
Researchers described an underwater world of visual wonders, such as the small epaulette shark that "walks" on its fins and colorful schools of reef fish populating abundant and healthy corals of all shapes and sizes.
Threats from over-fishing with dynamite and cyanide, as well as deforestation and mining that degrade coastal waters, require immediate steps to protect the unique marine life that sustains local communities. The seascape's central location in the Coral Triangle of the Pacific, which exports and maintains biodiversity in the entire Indo-Pacific marine realm, makes it one of the planet's most urgent marine conservation priorities.
"These Papuan reefs are literally 'species factories' that require special attention to protect them from unsustainable fisheries and other threats so they can continue to benefit their local owners and the global community," said Mark Erdmann, senior adviser of CI's Indonesian Marine Program, who led the surveys. "Six of our survey sites, which are areas the size of two football fields, had over 250 species of reef-building coral each - that's more than four times the number of coral species of the entire Caribbean Sea."
Though human population density in the region is low, the coastal people of the Bird's Head peninsula are heavily dependent on the sea for their livelihoods - which now are under threat from a plan to transfer fishing pressures from Indonesia's over-fished western seas to the east toward Papua province.
"The coastal villages we surveyed were mostly engaged in subsistence fishing, farming and gathering, and they require healthy marine ecosystems to survive," said Paulus Boli, a State University of Papua researcher led the socioeconomic component of the expeditions. "We are very concerned about the potential impact of planned commercial fisheries expansion in the region, and we urge a precautionary approach that emphasizes sustainability over intensive exploitation."
The two Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) surveys earlier this year, along with a third expedition in 2001, studied waters surrounding Papua province from Teluk Cenderawasih in the north to the Raja Ampat archipelago off the western coast and southeast to the FakFak-Kaimana coastline. A few hundred kilometers inland are Papua's Foja Mountains, where a team led by CI and the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) last year discovered a virtual "Lost World" of new species of birds, butterflies, frogs and other wildlife.
Off the coast, researchers found more than 50 species of fish, coral and mantis shrimp previously unknown to science in the Bird's Head Seascape that covers 18 million hectares, including 2,500 islands and submerged reefs. The seascape also includes the largest Pacific leatherback turtle nesting area in the world, and migratory populations of sperm and Bryde's whales, orcas and several dolphin species.
"We're thankful to the Ministry of Forestry and CI for the significant data from these surveys, and we are excited to be planning further surveys in 2007 to fill in remaining data gaps that will help us plan the most effective management possible for this exceedingly crucial area," said Dr. Suharsono, head of LIPI's Oceanography Center.
Only 11 percent of the seascape is currently protected, most of it in the Teluk Cenderawasih National Park that is supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Indonesia (WWF-Indonesia). Results of the CI-led surveys highlight the need for a well-managed network of multiple-use Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to conserve the seascape's biodiversity and ensure the long-term sustainability of commercial and subsistence fishing.
Partners in the two 2006 surveys funded by the Walton Family Foundation included the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry's Department of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation and its local offices in Papua; Teluk Cenderawasih National Park Authority, the State University of Papua, and WWF-Indonesia.
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