‘Coral Triangle’ 10 Times as Biodiverse as Great Barrier Reef

July 17, 2010 in Building the Green Economy, Climate Destabilization, Ecosystem Resilience by Joseph Robertson

The great Coral Triangle, a region of coral-dense seas demarcated by Malaysia, Indonesia, Timor L’Este, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the Philippines, is said to be 10 times as biodiverse as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. 76% of all known species of coral are found in the Coral Triangle, and warming ocean temperatures are causing advanced coral bleaching and endangering the entire regional ecosystem.

Australia is a key supporter of conservation efforts in the Coral Triangle, through the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI), but at least one scientist says the Australian management system for retaining diversity in the Triangle will not work. Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, a world leader in the field, says “There is no single recipe for how to manage a reef well and the Great Barrier Reef model is not exportable to a poor country”.

The ARC Coral Reef Centre (CECRS) is a collaboration between several research institutions and governmental bodies, aimed at fostering the best possible scientific understanding of the ecology of coral reefs and the ecological interrelationship of such natural systems and their surrounding environment.

Though the CECRS remains in need of added funding and sustained intergovernmental support, the Great Barrier Reef is an example of how coordinated conservation efforts can protect a fragile reef ecosystem from sustained environmental degradation. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority advises the Australian government on the best regulatory, environmental and zoning measures to protect and heal the largest reef system in the world.

The Coral Triangle is, however, a more complicated issue: covering 5.7 million square kilometers and incorporating more than 1/3 of all the world’s coral reefs, it includes over 600 different species of reef-building coral and more than 3,000 species of reef-dwelling fish, each of which shows different sensitivities to subtle environmental change. 75% of all mangrove species are also found in the Coral Triangle, as well as 58% of all tropical marine mollusk species and 45% of known seagrass species.

All of that biodiversity, along with 22 distinct species of marine mammals, occurs in an area that spans less than 1% of the world’s oceans. At least 97 species of Indonesian reef fish and 50 species of Philippine reef fish are found nowhere else on Earth. The value of those species to their specific habitats is, to some degree, incalculable, because their specific evolutionary qualities and habits cannot be replaced. Observing and preserving the richness of the Coral Triangle is a massive undertaking fraught with scientific and logistical complexity, and the effort requires a significant commitment of time, funding and personnel from the region’s governments.

It is now understood that the ecological integrity of the Coral Triangle is of major importance for regional food security. Whole communities depend on the sea for sustenance and also for their access to currency and trade. The Triangle is home to major tuna spawning and nursery grounds, without which a major portion of the world’s most valuable fishing industry would not exist. Millions of people a year depend on the resulting fish population for part of their diet.

A diverse range of food-chain sustaining natural services is woven into the normal functioning of the Coral Triangle’s wide range of fragile ecosystems. The coral reefs attract and protect huge populations of mollusks and more mobile fish species. Predators are drawn to the dense concentration of life, and in turn contribute to the evolutionary intensity of the region. Protein-rich marine harvests are more attainable due to the concentration of diverse species.

The World Wildlife Fund has established a series of “key strategies” for its efforts to protect the biodiversity of the Coral Triangle. These include regional mechanisms, meant to transcend institutional, cultural and political boundaries, to enhance cooperation and establish legal frameworks and sustained mechanisms for governance and regulatory protection, collaboration between the public and private sectors, to ensure best practices, and building the capacity of conservation mechanisms to operate in the field.

The WWF key strategies also include an ecosystem-based plan for ocean resource management, with policies designed to ensure sustainable fisheries and solid funding for marine protected areas (MPA) that prevent activities injurious to the local ecosystem fabric. Also key are efforts to expand the populations of some species, particularly those most threatened with extinction due to their vulnerable numbers and/or responsiveness to environmental change. Such efforts are “focusing protection efforts on key phases of their life history”.

What WWF calls “adaptive management strategies for climate change” are also vital. Working to understand and to implement the best response mechanisms related to mitigating climate destabilization, while reducing the vulnerability of specific marine populations to global climate change , is key to defending the delicate reef systems against overwhelming degradation from temperature-based erosion. Strategies must be adaptive, because 1) the reefs must “learn” to deal with specific threats and 2) the threats themselves are evolving as ocean temperatures and climate patterns change.

The vast majority of human populations in the Coral Triangle live near the water, meaning their social and economic lives are tied to the health of the region’s ecosystems. Not only for sustenance and for the tradable fish catch, but also marine tourism and the reliability of mapped communities, protecting the biodiversity which makes the region what it is must be a priority for those communities and for the national governments which may, until recently, have been unaware of the destabilizing impact inattention could have on the human population across several countries.

Highly unique species prized by human beings, for travel and for scientific reasons, like the whale shark —the world’s largest fish— and the coelacanth —considered a “living fossil”—, both mysterious in their habits and of prime interest to marine researchers, inhabit the waters of the Coral Triangle. Such visible “stakeholders” can play a key role in efforts to spread the word about conservation, as has the polar bear on the issue Arctic ice-melt and the spotted owl of America’s Pacific northwest on deforestation and clear-cutting.

National governments must play a part, but more local governments can also be instrumental in effecting change. In the Philippines, for instance, the Mindanao Examiner reported in June that “The provincial government of Tawi-Tawi has supported the creation of the Environment Code to promote principles of ecologically sustainable development and protection of the environment, especially the marine ecosystem.”

Tawi-Tawi, in the southernmost reaches of the Philippines more than 7,100 islands, is central to Coral Triangle ecology. Policies put into effect there will have a ripple effect that could benefit marine ecosystems at considerable distance from Tawi-Tawi. The Examiner also reported that, in furtherance of enhanced conservation efforts:

The provincial government also held a series of consultations with different municipalities, simultaneous with the launching of the Natural Resources Management Program in the towns of Bongao, Panglima Sugala, Sibutu and Sitangkai. Several agencies and sectors like the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of Social Welfare and Development and the media, participated in a three-day workshop on environment law.

The US State Department helped organize an International Observation Study Tour on Environment that involved Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan, and was intended to help spread awareness of the need for conservation efforts that are integrated into broader economic development and diplomatic strategies. Provincial vice-governor Ruby Sahali-Tan was “the sole representative of the Philippines”, highlighting the importance of Tawi-Tawi and the Coral Triangle itself to regional development and ecological health.