National Geographic
Menu

Protecting Coral Reefs, From the FL Keys to the Savu Sea

Photo: The biodiversity of the Savu Sea supports local economies and livelihoods. Mark Godfrey, The Nature Conservancy

Photo: The biodiversity of the Savu Sea supports local economies and livelihoods. Mark Godfrey, The Nature Conservancy

By Rob Brumbaugh, Integrated Ocean Management Lead, The Nature Conservancy

I’ve just returned from Bali, Indonesia, where I spent three weeks working with The Nature Conservancy’s Indonesia marine program, and attending an international conference of scientists and economists exploring ways to make the human benefits of nature more apparent to policy makers and stakeholders everywhere.  The Savu is host to some of the world’s most pristine and kaleidoscopic coral reefs.

It was an enriching experience in a lot of ways, and I came back to my home in the Florida Keys excited about the work that lies ahead.

My work with TNC’s Indonesia marine team focused on the Savu Sea, which is bounded by a series of islands at the bottom of the Indonesian archipelago. It is about the size of North America’s Lake Superior.  It is also an amazingly productive place where currents from the Pacific and Indian Oceans intermingle, multiplying the sea’s productivity to feed whales, birds and people.

Indonesia is about to declare a large swath of the Savu Sea a National Marine Park.   The new park will have zones that support traditional fisheries, sustainable marine tourism, and areas where coral reefs and other important habitats are protected and where no fishing or other extractive activities are allowed.  The zones are intended to balance a mix of uses that support millions of people whose livelihoods depend on the prolific marine life of the region.

The new park will be a huge contribution to the Coral Triangle Initiative, a six-nation effort to restore and protect the most diverse reefs and fish populations on Earth.   The Park was designed with the best available social, scientific, and ecological information about the region, tempered by political and social considerations that are inescapable—and essential—to such efforts.

In five-or-so years, under Indonesian regulation, there will be an opportunity to re-evaluate the zones, and to make changes that improve their effectiveness.  This process of “adaptive management” provides the opportunity to integrate new information in conservation and management decisions as needs change over time.  TNC‘s marine scientists are already preparing for that day by organizing a Rapid Ecological Assessment, an intensive expedition with scientists gathering new and improved information that will help policy makers and stakeholders better understand the system and how people’s actions affect it.

The more I learned about the Savu Sea, its people, and the opportunities to use science to help inform important decisions, the more I am reminded of other places where TNC’s scientists and planning experts are at work, helping to inform the way we interact with fragile coral reefs and tropical marine ecosystems.  The Florida Keys, in particular, come to mind, in part because I call them home.  The Savu Sea and Florida Keys are separated by half a world, and differ vastly both culturally and economically, and yet they are remarkably close in terms of the challenges and opportunities for conservation and effective ocean management.

In both places, people and local economies depend on healthy marine ecosystems like coral reefs and mangroves for food, jobs and recreation.   The Savu Sea, however, is home to 2.3 million people, dwarfing the 73,000 who call the Keys home.  But let’s not forget the millions of tourists who flock to the Florida Keys each year to pursue diving, fishing, and other recreational opportunities. It is certainly fair to say that in both places, millions of people expect the coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems to continue to function and provide benefits far into the future.

TNC was instrumental in helping to create the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1990 and has played an ongoing role in promoting protection and sustainable uses of sanctuary resources by serving on the Sanctuary Advisory Council.  The Council and sanctuary staff led the development of the sanctuary’s original management plan, which includes specific action strategies for water quality, education, marine zoning, and many other priorities.  In both places, large areas are protected under national programs that involve special management zones that carefully balance scientific understanding with local economic priorities.

While Indonesia’s Savu Sea National Marine Park is just getting started, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is entering its third decade under shared oversight by state and federal managers.  Like the Savu Sea, the Keys’ National Marine Sanctuary has distinct areas set aside to support different activities and objectives, such as fishing, diving, research, and conservation.  And yet again, just like the Savu Sea, these zones are periodically re-examined and refined based on new science and public input.

In fact, the Keys Sanctuary is currently in just such a re-evaluation period, undergoing an exhaustive process of reviewing the latest science, gathering public input, and developing updated regulations that will help ensure the effective management of the sanctuary for the next twenty-year period.  Scientific survey data documenting reefs that are resistant to devastating ills such as coral bleaching and diseases are being incorporated into this review thanks to the Florida Reef Resilience Program, which has been coordinated by The Nature Conservancy since 1995.

It’s exciting to see this kind of ‘integrated’ ocean management being used in these two places.  The Florida Keys are a few decades ahead in the management cycle, which offers a glimpse at what to expect in the Savu Sea. There are useful lessons to be learned as to how to make adaptive management work in that important area when the time comes to re-evaluate the Savu’s zones.  Decisions in both places are, by necessity, made with the best available, albeit imperfect, information.  And yet, with a commitment to adaptive management, there is a continual opportunity to refine and improve management decisions as we learn more and collect better data about how ecosystems function and support our economies.  And this is where TNC’s programs really shine, using science and pragmatic approaches to deliver both lasting conservation and economic opportunities that healthy ecosystems provide around the globe.