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Ricardo Tapilatu: Reflections of a CI Fulbright scholar

Located approximately 1,800 miles from Indonesia’s bustling capital lies Bird’s Head Seascape, a place teeming with life below its waters. Bird’s Head is composed of over 2,500 islands and reefs with waters covering an area the size of Great Britain. Often referred to as the global epicenter of marine biodiversity, Bird’s Head is home to over 1,700 species of reef fish and 600 species of coral. It would be hard to go on a dive without seeing a graceful manta swimming by, schools of reef fish darting around, or swathes of colorful corals protruding from the reef.

Bird's Head Seascape, Indonesia

Additionally, Bird’s Head’s islands boast the largest remaining nesting beaches for the critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle. At least 75% of Pacific leatherbacks lay their eggs at Bird’s Head, but the number of turtle nests has dramatically dropped since 1984. These turtles bring marine researcher Ricardo Tapilatu into the fold. Ricardo, a faculty member at University of Papua’s Research Center for Pacific Marine Resources, has studied these turtles since 2004, focusing on marine conservation efforts for this species.

Ricardo Tapilatu

Through his work, Ricardo has gained worldwide recognition for his sea turtle research, and was one of eight marine conservationists chosen to receive a 2018 Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation. Since the temperature of sand determines the sex of sea turtles, Ricardo is focusing his research for this fellowship on the impacts of climate change on global sea turtle populations.

Simultaneous to receiving the Pew Fellowship, Ricardo was also awarded a Fulbright scholarship to conduct postdoctoral research at Conservation International (CI) with a focus on the Bali Ocean Health Index (OHI). Ricardo was first connected with CI in 2003 working on an ecosystem based management project, so this scholarship provided an opportunity for Ricardo and CI to continue to build on ocean management in Bird’s Head and advance CI’s successes in Indonesia as a whole.

With the desire to add marine megafauna into the OHI biodiversity goal for a potential Bird’s Head assessment, Ricardo’s two research projects would come together – connecting the sea turtles he has dedicated his life to with big picture ocean health and management.

With his Fulbright position coming to a close, Ricardo shares his thoughts on the work he accomplished and major lessons learned over the last year.

What was the focus of your postdoctoral fellowship at CI?

My fellowship focused on assisting the Bali OHI team score the OHI’s goals during the middle stage of the assessment. Throughout the fellowship, I helped the Bali team connect with multiple stakeholders, find suitable local data, and complete analyses for the coastal protection, biodiversity, and carbon storage goals.

How is OHI different from other tools you have used in the past?

OHI developed a methodology to measure ocean health through a multitude of factors that are simplified into single scores. Instead of having multiple indices or disperse datasets to refer to, OHI provides one resource for social, economic, and environmental components of ocean health.

Were there any challenges or obstacles you had to overcome?

Working with multiple stakeholders can be a challenge due to differing institutional priorities and time availability. But to succeed on impactful, collaborative projects, everyone needs to have a similar vision and commitment level.

By engaging with local stakeholders, I realized the OHI framework and tool provided a common goal for everyone to work towards. Through the use of GitHub, a version control site to store code and data, OHI also made it easier for our team to remotely coordinate and work together.

What are the key skills you gained from the fellowship?

Through this process, I was able to gain a deeper understanding of OHI and how it can be used to inform ocean management in Indonesia. While diving into R script modifications and stakeholder engagement, I learned how to use local data to perform analyses. But I realized the best role for me to play is sharing the big picture and having students or a technical team translate this into OHI goal model modifications.

Since Indonesia is the center of the Coral Triangle, located between two ocean and two continents, and previous center of maritime trade, we need to integrate what we have learned into a long-term, big-picture plan for ocean management.

How will you use knowledge learned in this process to advance ocean and coastal management efforts in West Papua, Indonesia?

Bird’s Head Seascape is relatively pristine and we have baseline data of the status of the sea before development occurred. Building off the momentum of the Bali assessment, I hope to complete an OHI assessment for the Bird’s Head Seascape once funding becomes available to track how its health changes through time. I would be especially interested in adding marine megafauna data into the OHI biodiversity goal.