In the small coastal villages of Timor-Leste’s Nino Konis Santana National Park, coral reefs are at the center of daily life. Everyone awakes to the sounds of the waves, and work revolves around the moods of the sea and tides. For generations, men have fished the reefs that fringe the coast, passing knowledge and skills to their sons. Women and younger children comb the shallows at low tide, searching the intertidal pools for edible creatures.
Coral reefs are some of the most productive ecosystems in the ocean. They provide a place for fish to breed and a home for species such as sea cucumbers and giant clams, which have a high value for international trade. They also offer coastal communities protection from severe weather events and provide prime sites for tourism-related activities such as diving.
As climate change makes oceans warmer and more acidic, coral reefs are increasingly under threat. These changes, combined with recent destructive fishing practices and coastal development, have led to plummeting productivity. Across the Indo-Pacific region, 79 percent of spawning aggregations of reef fish have either stopped forming or are in decline.
Fishing communities are acutely aware of these changes. As 40-year-old fisherman Leonardo da Costa reflected, “The days of the big fish seem to be over. It makes me worried about what will be left for our children.”
USAID’s Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP) is a five-year project implemented by a consortium of Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund. The project currently works in five Coral Triangle countries—Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Philippines and Malaysia—home to some of the most diverse and important coral reef ecosystems in the world.
The project has been working with da Costa and other members of coastal communities in the park since 2009, helping them better understand, manage and protect their vital resources. Local fishermen now understand the lifecycles of the target species they fish and the importance of sticking to minimum catch sizes. They also understand the various habitats these species need across their lifetimes, how to monitor whether these habitats are in good condition, and what to do if they are deteriorating. At the center of everything are the coral reefs themselves, which the communities now understand as a network of complex and important ecological features that require protection so that the rest of the ecosystem can thrive.
It makes me worried about what will be left
for our children.”
With these new skills, local management groups have selected a number of the most important sites and designated them as “no-take” zones. At these sites, they are introducing increased protection measures and working with the nearby communities to explain and use improved fisheries practices.
The sites include all the basics needed for good fish productivity such as spawning and aggregation areas and diverse, healthy coral reefs. Protection measures include a ban on fishing in the no-take zones so that fish stocks can be replenished. This, in turn, improves fish catches in nearby waters.
“By providing the communities with knowledge and skills to better manage their own resources, we’re empowering them to have greater control over securing and strengthening their livelihoods—both now and into the future,” says Ryder Rogers, USAID’s economic growth team leader.
From Turtle Hunters to Turtle Protectors
This ecosystem management approach doesn’t just improve fish stocks. The healthier reefs and coastal areas also provide a better draw for one of the communities’ proposed non-fish income sources—tourists. Nature-based tourism in the Coral Triangle has been valued at approximately $12 billion annually.
While the economic potential of tourism is still largely unrealized in Timor-Leste, recent scientific surveys revealing the country’s high rates of marine biodiversity reaffirm the potential to capitalize on this market. High-profile species such as sea turtles are important attractions for marine tourism. A World Wildlife Fund study indicates that turtle tourism could be worth nearly three times as much as the sale of turtle products such as meat, leather and eggs.
The sites that have been selected for protection under CTSP also include turtle nesting and breeding grounds. After CTSP training, many fisher families have transformed themselves from turtle hunters to turtle protectors. They routinely protect adult turtles and patrol nesting sites. In the town of Com, the managers of a local tourist guesthouse have fenced a vulnerable nest site, guarded it from dogs and other potential marauders, and protected the hatchlings on their way to the sea. They also monitored hatch dates and hatchling numbers to build the community’s knowledge base.
“Now, the government knows that businesses such as ours do care for the environment,” said Robela da Cruz, who runs the guesthouse with her husband, Edmundo, “because, simply put, a healthy environment is good for business.”
On Timor-Leste’s south coast, the community of Lore has also been protecting turtles. Residents rescued nearly a dozen adults in 2012 and continue to protect nesting sites.
“Since we have learned from CTSP and the government how low turtle numbers are, we estimate that we have reduced turtle poaching by 80 percent,” said Joao da Costa, a Lore fisherman and village head.
Teaming up with Government
As part of recent activities, CTSP has linked local communities with district and national government officials through the establishment of formal co-management groups. “With CTSP’s guidance, traditional knowledge and community rules have been joined to government regulations in order to form a structure for improved environmental management,” said Rogers. “By embedding their knowledge and plans in the national regulatory framework, fishing communities can work in partnership with local and national officials to share knowledge and resources.”
Collaborative approaches like this are vital to communities as they begin to adapt to the impacts of climate change. “From an ecological perspective, building climate change resilience must focus on reducing as many external threats as possible, thereby increasing the adaptive capacity of the ecosystems themselves,” said Rui Pinto, CTSP project manager.
The fishing communities of the Nino Konis Santana National Park, home to nearly 5,000 people, are an excellent example. By embracing the future and working together, they are reducing the threats that they can control and increasing the opportunities that will be available to their children.
Fishermen like Leonardo da Costa now have a more positive outlook on the future. “The fisheries are my only income,” he said. “By protecting them now, I’m able to pay for my six kids to go to school. If everyone looks after the resources and fisheries properly, in 10 years’ time there will still be enough fish for me to send my kids to university.”
Candice Mohan is the Timor-Leste country director with Conservation International.
Last updated: September 19, 2016