Reefs At Risk

With its remote location and poor accessibility, to date relative isolation and low human population (50,000 inhabitants) has been Raja Ampat’s greatest defence against overuse and exploitation.  However, rich coastal and marine resources combined with increasing accessability have made it a target for economic development activities ranging from marine tourism, through to fisheries, mining and logging.  Now, in addition to the burden of human induced climate change that is affecting reefs globally, the reefs of Raja Ampat face a series of new and emerging threats from locally developing industries.

Prior to the travel restrictions surrounding CoVid-19 and the suspension of tourism in the Raja Ampat region, infrastructure and implementation of regulations were not yet ready to manage the existing level of tourism, let alone the growing number of tourists arriving year upon year.  Prior to CoVid-19, the volume of tourists was overtaking the available management techniques and sustainable development regulation in the region.

In order to avoid returning to this situation, what is needed urgently is more effective management and monitoring of the impact of tourism development and ecological states within the MPAs, and genuine efforts from the industry itself to support genuine sustainable tourism.  Supporting logistics, infrastructure enhanced management and monitoring systems are critical to limit the increasing impact of tourism development upon the region.

The SEA People are working collaboratively with multiple stakeholders to develop solutions to support a sustainable tourism industry, protect marine environments and support local communities.

The Challenge

Rapid and Unsustainable Development

Just 15 years ago there were 2-3 liveaboards operating in the little known and difficult to access region of Raja Ampat for just a few months each year. 10 years ago, there were approximately 5-8 land based operations and just 3000 tourists per year (Birdshead Seascape).  In 2019, there were approximately 30,000 (known) tourists, 26+ resorts – with more under construction – 150  guesthouses, 100+ liveaboards and a growing number of private vessels frequenting the area.  Previously, the general agreement by conservation groups and concerned parties was that tourism would provide a genuine solution to a number of conservation and socio-economic issues;
1) It would provide a sustainable and directly beneficial livelihood to local people by taking the place of extractive activities like bomb fishing, shark finning, mining or deforestation
2) The presence of tourists would (and did!) serve as an informal regulatory system that  would discourage illegal and extractive behaviours
3) Revenue generated from tourism would demonstrate the economic value of an intact marine ecosystem, and in doing so, protect it.

However, as is the case in many remote, undeveloped and beautiful locations on the planet, word quickly spread and Raja Ampat, currently touted “The Last Paradise”, rapidly became the must see location on all diver and intrepid travellers list.  For the past 5-7 years, as a result of national and international marketing efforts by the tourism industry, the region has been experiencing a period of unprecedented and rapid development.

The Dampier Strait, with its with strong currents and upwellings which support an abundance of marine life, lies at the heart of this development.  Yet it is these same strong currents that impact and influence the wider region of Raja Ampat; meaning that any development that influences or disturbs the ecology in Dampier Strait, could also influence and disturb Raja Ampat as a whole.

 4,200 tonne cruise ship destroys 1600m2 of pristine coral in shallow waters off Kri Island, Raja Ampat. March 2017.  Photo credit: SCMP

Whilst tourism numbers have increased 10-fold in a short period of time, and continues to rise exponentially (pre-covid19), there is a currently lag between this growth and the infrastructure and systems necessary to provide protection to the reefs and to service this rapidly exploding industry.

Rapid development has brought to the region a wide range of activities and environmental disturbances that the area is not yet equipped to handle from an infrastructure or logistical perspective.  The reefs of Raja Ampat now face  threats including more boat traffic, increased anchor damage and boat strike to reefs, increased waste water/sewerage and waste production and increased reef degradation.

And whilst tourism does indeed provide solutions to a number of environmental and socio-eoconomic problems, it only does so if implemented with considered and genuine sustainable planning in mind.

The SEA People are currently working with local communities, local government, tourism operators and other stakeholders to address these issues and implement sustainable solutions that are beneficial to the environment, and to all stakeholders.   

Reefs Over Carrying Capacity

A study by Renoldy L Papilaya et al (2019) has estimated more popular reefs are well over ecological carrying capacity (ie: the threshold limit for visitor use and consequent incidental damage that the coral reef ecosystem can sustain without being degraded), yet the numbers still grow.  From an ecological perspective, at some locations there are visible signs of damage, disease and pollution throughout the region, drawing concern from scientists and conservationists, and complaints from tourists who seek the uncrowded and pristine reefs they’ve read about. More alarmingly, as baselines for the term ‘untouched’ change, this current state of degradation is considered as ‘pristine’ by many, in comparison to the heavily degraded, or even dead, reefs found elsewhere in the world.

Of the 70 dive sites monitored in our Orang Laut Raja Ampat monitoring program, 9 dive sites represent 50% of the tourism pressure.

Substrate Stabilisation

Whilst so much of Raja Ampat remains relatively pristine, amongst the abundance lies the effect of human interference and influence; including large areas of degraded reef and coral rubble caused by destructive fishing practices (dynamite and cyanide fishing) from the  80s through to early 2000s.  To this day, many of these destroyed reefs have not recovered.  These degraded reefs cannot regenerate without assistance, and additionally pose threats to healthy reefs located nearby (see diagram).

In collaboration with local communities, The SEA People restore degraded areas of reef using substrate stabilization techniques that enable coral polyps to successfully settle and grow, to eventually re-establish large and healthy reef networks that support the abundance of life Raja Ampat is known for. See our Yaf Keru project for more details.

Coral Degradation – Physical Damage

Anchor Damage & Boat Strike

The complex currents and topographic systems of Raja Ampat make it very challenging for liveaboards and private sailing vessels to safely and harmlessly anchor without damaging coral reefs. At present, few moorings existing within the Marine Park, leaving vessels no alternative but to anchor within an environment where abundant corals still thrive between 35-50m. This, combined with a lack of detailed regional maps, and potential lack of awareness and negligence by vessel operators, is resulting in unnecessary damage to reefs within the marine parks, particularly on reefs more frequently visited by tourism.  

Trampling & Kicking

The rapidly increasing tourism density combined with a lack of environmental awareness has provoked a marked increase in physical degradation of shallow reefs nearby tourism hotspots.




Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS)

These coral eating starfish can devastate entire reefs when their populations abnormally increase in response to pollution, warming, or overfishing of their predators. At this point, there are several reefs within the Marine Parks that have COTs populations at outbreak level. This plague-like situation is difficult to evaluate and can only be contained through collaboration between stakeholders to mitigate these outbreaks. We have established a participative citizen science approach that is open to any individual or organisation that wishes to contribute.

More information about our collaborative response can be found on our COTS Outbreak Map and  COTS in Raja Ampat pages.

Its Now or Never.

At a time when coral reef degradation is occurring worldwide due to human activity, and in response to human induced climate change, it is essential and common sense to design and develop community-based conservation tools to respond to these current and future degradation issues. Rather than waiting for the pristine local reefs of Raja Ampat to be destroyed, become damaged or lose their natural resilience, we collaborate with local communities in projects that support the sustainable use and protection of marine resources. We are currently working on mutually beneficial stakeholder based solutions, in order to address these new and emerging threats to the reefs of Raja Ampat and the local communities who depend upon them.

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