Economic crisis, civil war and tsunami no problem if reefs well managed

A tsunami's impact on a coral reef is slight compared to the devastation wreaked by human use of explosives and poison, latest research from the coast of Aceh in Indonesia has disclosed.

A new study published in the journal Atoll Research Bulletin, highlights the success of traditional systems and marine parks in protecting coral reefs in Aceh, Indonesia.

The Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 has given marine scientists their first real chance to examine the impact of this type of catastrophic disturbance on marine ecosystems – and compare how managed areas of reef fared compared with sites where 'anything goes'.

The research was carried out in March 2005, less than 100 days after the tsunami. An international scientific team including ecologists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Syiah Kuala University, and James Cook University (JCU) visited 49 reefs in northern Aceh - all within 300 km of the epicenter - to determine the condition of the reefs in the wake of the tsunami.

"Basically we found that the early reports about tsunami devastation to the coral reefs on which the local tourism industry is based were grossly exaggerated. Similarly, the tsunami had no detectable effect on reef fish assemblages at these sites."

"Damage to the corals …was surprisingly limited and trivial when compared to pre-existing damage, probably caused by destructive fishing practices," says Dr Andrew Baird of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, JCU who was a member of the assessment team.

But their most startling finding was that reef condition was clearly related to how effectively the reef was being managed.

"Coral cover was on average 2-3 times higher on reefs managed under the traditional Acehnese system, and in the Pulau Rubiah Marine Park compared to open-access areas," says Dr Stuart Campbell who leads the WCS Indonesian marine program "The high quality of many of the reefs of Pulau Weh represents a considerable conservation achievement. While the condition of many reefs in the region remains a cause for concern, this is one of the few examples of successful marine resource management using both a traditional approach and marine reserves globally."

Dr Morgan Pratchett, also from the ARC CoE for Reef Studies adds "The Acehnese traditional model has been successful because maintaining the livelihoods of the people is the main goal: people have not been excluded from the environment. Fishing pressure is managed through group decisions plus there is an effective means of conflict resolution."

"We have much to learn from the Acehnese experience." according to Dr Baird "Their success in the face of civil war, economic collapse, and catastrophic natural disaster is extraordinary, and the goal is to understand and replicate their success in other parts of Indonesia and the world."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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