By Stuart Campbell and Nils Krueck
The Forgotten Islands occupy a region in the southeastern Indonesian province of Maluku, a sparsely-populated area covering about 50,000 square kilometers that includes a vast expanse of coral reefs. As the region’s name suggests, not much is known about these reefs and their associated fisheries.
One important reason for this is that for much of the year the seas are wild and unable to be accessed. Another reason is that Maluku’s Forgotten Islands support around 70,000 people who practice traditional customs that hark back to before the conversion of communities to Christianity. These customs include the guarding of marine resources against occasional visitors, such as nomadic fishers from central Indonesia.
As part of a larger collaborative effort between the World Wildlife Fund, the University of Queensland, and the Wildlife Conservation Society to explore, manage, and conserve the Sunda Banda Seascape of Indonesia, we recently traveled to the wider region surrounding the Forgotten Islands in order to survey reef habitats, reef fish communities, and fishing activities.
We began our expedition in Maumere on the island of Flores (three islands to the east of Bali). Surveying the local reefs, we found beautiful corals and plentiful small reef fishes amongst wide sections of bombed wasteland.
As a result of local blast fishing, key fisheries target species (such as big groupers, snappers, and sweetlips) are rare. After curious local fishers and their families greeted us, they asked that we let our “bosses” in Jakarta know how difficult their lives are. Having just surveyed their reef, we knew there were almost no big fish left.
Sailing west 100 kilometers, we entered the province of Maluku, the entrance to the Forgotten Islands. The remoteness and wildness of the seascape sent ripples of excitement and anticipation through the expedition team. Almost immediately we saw large pods of dolphins cruising around many busy kite fishers. The sea appeared full of life. As we travelled east, it was clear that these reef habitats supported a greater fish biomass than we’d seen elsewhere – possibly the highest biomass of reef fish populations ever recorded throughout the whole of Indonesia.
For these reefs to endure, protection of key areas and dependent fish populations is essential before these magnificent corals become not merely forgotten but lost forever.
There’s no question that almost all the “forgotten” reefs we saw on our expedition could support productive fisheries. Compared to those near the more populated islands west of Maluku, these reefs had a higher diversity of both soft and hard corals, which often covered more than 80 percent of a given reef area.
Similarly impressive was the complexity of reef structures, providing picturesque formations of living space and shelter for a fantastically diverse range of reef inhabitants. Especially heartening, there were no signs of blast fishing, nor were there fishing lines or nets on reefs – suggesting that those conditions represented the natural reef state in the area.
Fishing is evidently happening throughout the entire expedition area, but it was only in the Forgotten Islands region where we saw large specimens of the most important fishery target species (including coral trout, giant grouper, Malabar grouper, and green humphead parrotfish).
We also saw impressive schools of smaller reef fishery species (for example, the sleek unicornfish and the humpback red snapper) as well as of commercially important reef-associated pelagics (the giant trevally and blackfin barracuda). We frequently crossed paths with iconic megafauna such as hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and reptiles like saltwater crocs.
From a conservation perspective, the Forgotten Islands stood out for a number of reasons. First, although there was little or no evidence of blast fishing or commercial fishing employing purse, seine, or gill nets, local fishers told us stories of large vessels coming at the end of the west monsoon (in October and November) to hunt the large pelagic species.
We had noticed a dearth of such fish at some sites. Export of three large grouper species from key sites appears to be feeding the Hong Kong live reef market. This has been an Indonesia-wide phenomenon since the 1970’s, leading to the collapse of grouper populations in western and central Indonesia. Without necessary controls, it is just a matter of time before productive fisheries for these species ceases.
The region also seems ripe for future development – whether from tourism or expanding local populations. Because there do not appear to be fishing regulations presently, measures must be taken to protect both reefs in need of recovery and those that provide larvae to feed connected reefs.
Before we can identify areas where investments in conservation measures would be most strategically placed, a few key actions are required. First, we need to gauge openness locally to pro-active measures to protect the economic and ecological values of the region. Second, we must determine what levels of support and capacity exist within local government agencies. If these are low, we will need to build capacity and provide technical information on strategies to sustain fisheries.
Lastly, we will need a more thorough investigation of the reef ecosystems and the fisheries that are supported by them – identifying critical fishing grounds, their productivity, innovative solutions to curb exploitative activities, and the key habitats that require protection so communities can fish well into the future.
The Forgotten Islands represent some of the most pristine reefs of Indonesia – truly one of the “last of the wild” seascapes on earth. For these reefs to endure ever-increasing demands for reef-fishery products, strategic protection of key areas and dependent fish populations is essential before these magnificent corals become not merely forgotten but lost forever.
Stuart Campbell is the Director of the Indonesia Marine Program for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Nils Krueck is a marine and fisheries biologist currently involved in the Sunda Banda Seascape project for WWF (World Wildlife Fund).