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Protecting the BOFFFFs

Protected areas are giant umbrellas that can help shelter marine life from the storms that are changing our world: habitat destruction, overfishing and excessive resource extraction, pollution, invasive species, climate change and ocean acidification. Protected areas can’t magically exclude all those threats, but by protecting against some, plants and animals have a better chance of withstanding the others. 

I am recently back from Raja Ampat, Indonesia, a remarkable part the world containing more species than any place else in the ocean: more than 600 species of reef forming corals —75% of the world’s total and ten times more than in the Caribbean—and more than 1,600 species of coral reef fish, as well as important species of marine turtles, dolphins, whales and seabirds. Raja Ampat means ‘four kings’ and it refers to the four large islands at what looks like the “beak” of West Papua’s Bird’s Head Seascape (see map).

The marine ecosystems found in the Bird's Head Seascape are not only globally unique, but also critical for the food security, livelihoods, and culture of local communities and are thus vital for protection. To accomplish that task, a coalition of partners including Conservation International, WWF-Indonesia, the Nature Conservancy and a number of local partners including the Papua Sea Turtle Foundation and the State University of Papua, is collaborating with the government of Indonesia, the provincial and regency governments of West Papua, and local communities to create and help manage twelve Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) spread throughout the region, seven of them in Raja Ampat. The seven MPAs in Raja Ampat total almost 1.2 million hectares and include about 45% of its coral reefs.

The conservation coalition has been working intensely in Raja Ampat since 2004. Together they have supported the design the MPA network through a rigorous scientific and community-driven process, improved local understanding and support for conservation, and then systematically built the capacity of local communities and governments to effectively manage their protect areas with continued monitoring, enforcement, and education efforts. 

Raja Ampat

Guarding this remarkable treasure gets more important every day, because its richness, including fisheries, and numerous opportunities for tourism, oil, gas, mining and logging have recently drawn more and more people and industry to the region.

MPAs not only protect the treasure of Bird's Head Seascape, they can help spread the wealth, in ensuring both preferential access to locals and fish sanctuaries where “BOFFFFs” (big old fat fertile female fish) can grow and reproduce. Then, powerful currents sweep larvae to other parts of the BHS, Indonesia and the Pacific, where they can replenish populations and help them recover from natural or human-caused damage.

I feel so lucky to be able to do this work as part of a team working to understand the social and ecological impacts of MPAs, so they can deliver benefits for both conservation and human well-being. My trip last fall focused on surveying unprotected portions of Raja Ampat, for comparison with inside MPAs. Our results should inform best practices for establishing and managing MPAs so that the biological richness of this remarkable seascape will thrive and support human well-being into the future.  

Fox on deck with colleague Nur Hidayat (CI). 

It was a thrill to be diving again in these clear blue waters surrounded by colorful sea fans, sponges and corals, seeing varied and brilliant fishes when I’d look up from the straight transect line I was swimming along, measuring corals and other benthic habitat. Those are the data that will tell us, over time, how populations are doing within and outside of MPAs, leading to information we need to guide insightful conservation actions that will benefit ocean life and people.

I’ve done more than 1000 dives, and as I swim these transect lines, the dreamworld of magical colors and shapes sliding past makes clear the treasure that Indonesia has to share as a planetary legacy. It is my privilege to have a small role in helping WWF, TNC, CI and others in that quest.