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Indonesia’s Corals Recovering Rapidly From Tsunami

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Four years after the tsunami, corals are thriving in this transplant site on Achech, Indonesia.

Photo courtesy WCS

Coral reefs in areas of Indonesia devastated by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean four years ago today have made a rapid recovery, a team of scientists from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) reports.

The scientists, working in conjunction with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (ARCCoERS) along with government, community and non-government partners, has documented high densities of “baby corals” in areas that were severely impacted by the tsunami, the WCS said in a statement.

“On the 4th anniversary of the tsunami, this is a great story of ecosystem resilience and recovery,” said Stuart Campbell, coordinator of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Indonesia Marine Program. “Our scientific monitoring is showing rapid growth of young corals in areas where the tsunami caused damage, and also the return of new generations of corals in areas previously damaged by destructive fishing.

“These findings provide new insights into coral recovery processes that can help us manage coral reefs in the face of climate change.”

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New coral recruits in Aceh

Photo courtesy WCS

The researchers looked at 60 sites along 800 kilometers (497 miles) of coastline in Aceh, Indonesia. They attribute the recovery to natural colonization by resilient coral species, along with the reduction of destructive fishing practices by local communities.

“While initial surveys immediately following the tsunami showed patchy (albeit devastating) damage to coral reefs in the region, surveys in 2005 indicated that many of the dead reefs in the study area had actually succumbed long ago to destructive fishing practices such as the use of dynamite and cyanide to catch fish,” WCS said in a statement. “It is also possible that the crown of thorns starfish — a marine predator — had caused widespread coral mortality.”

Since then, some communities have moved away from destructive fishing and have even begun transplanting corals to recover damaged areas, WCS said.

For example, Dodent Mahyiddin, a dive operator on Weh Island, leads an effort to transplant corals onto hand-laid underwater structures to restore a badly damaged reef in front of the remains of his dive shop, which was also destroyed by the tsunami. “Already he is seeing widespread colonization of young corals,” WCS added.

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WCS marine biologist Rizya Legawa surveys reefs in Aceh

Photo courtesy WCS

The WCS team is working to establish community-based coral reef protected areas based on customary marine laws that were first established in the 1600s and maintained throughout Dutch colonial rule. The laws empower local communities to manage their own local marine resources rather than adhere to nationalized protected areas.

Healthy coral reefs are economic engines for Acehnese communities, according to WCS, supplying commercially valuable food fish as well as tourism dollars from recreational diving.

“The recovery, which is in part due to improved management and the direct assistance of local people, gives enormous hope that coral reefs in this remote region can return to their previous condition and provide local communities with the resources they need to prosper,” Campbell said. “The recovery process will be enhanced by management that encourages sustainable uses of these ecosystems and the protection of critical habitats and species to help this process.”

The study area is adjacent to the “Coral Triangle,” a massive region containing 75 percent of the world’s coral species shared by Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste.