Is there a future for Lombok’s coral reefs? Yale-NUS gives clarity

(a blog post by our marine scientist, Naomi Clark-Shen)

Our planet is under immense pressure, and coral reefs are one of the most vulnerable ecosystems in the world.

So what does this mean for The Dorsal Effect, which relies on healthy coral reefs to give an alternative livelihood to shark fishermen through eco-tourism?

We set out to try and answer this question.

Introducing Yale-NUS YNSEA….

In December 2016 a group of students from the Yale-NUS College Singapore Scuba Environments Association (a student initiated club) joined The Dorsal Effect for 3 days to survey Lombok’s coral reefs.

Our mission; to provide clarity on the current state of coral reefs, identify threats, and understand if there’s a future for eco-tourism.

Setting the scene…

Before journeying out to sea, we visited Tanjung Luar fish market to watch the shark landings. There is no stronger way to show people just why The Dorsal Effect does what it does than this.

On our first morning there were none, but the second morning was unlike anything I – or the students – have ever seen.

The boats pulled up to the beach, and one by one, more than 100 dead sharks were thrown overboard and left in piles on the beach. They were then carried to the auction platform – their massive size and weight straining the poles used to carry them.

The friendly fishermen were happy; this was a good catch. They let us get close and spoke to us. They’re not the enemy many media outlets would have you believe.

shark

sharkpile

Now that we have seen the problem, let’s check out a solution
The shark fishermen we engaged for this trip (and so weren’t a part of the morning’s catch) are patiently waiting for us with their boats.

It seems symbolic that we board the boats at the shark market itself. The noise, smells and chaos of the shark market linger around us as we step into the boats and head out to fresher territory.

The coral reef surveys…

We use the first day to train the Yale-NUS students in survey methods. For these surveys we want to assess coral health, and the abundance of marine creatures. The students use underwater measuring tapes as they do transects, as shown below!

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Despite the short training time, and bad weather (it was monsoon season!) the students were vigorous, and we managed to survey 6 different sites.

 So how are the coral reefs faring?


It’s mixed. Some sites were relatively pristine with healthy coral and schools of colourful fish – just what you would want from a snorkelling experience. Despite this, even the best sites showed signs of bleaching, with beautiful branching coral sporting white tips.

coral

In stark contrast, some sites were completely decimated. Coral was reduced to grey rubble on the sea floor and there were no marine creatures. Why? Dynamite fishing reportedly still occurs in the area, and can completely wipe out entire swathes of reef. There was also evidence of boats having dropped their anchor on corals and breaking them.

coraldead

 While The Dorsal Effect has strict regulations for it’s operations – such as no anchor dropping on corals, or kicking of coral by guests – we have sadly seen other tour operators that do not. We have witnessed a once pristine reef completely ruined because of this.

And of course, with 8 million tonnes of plastic entering the ocean each year, we had our encounters with plastic pollution too. Bags drifted in the water column, while a poor sea urchin was completely wrapped in plastic.

urchin

So what does the future look like?

It’s hard to say. For now, there are still beautiful reefs that we can use for eco-tourism, but this won’t be the case for long if they aren’t looked after.

  • Tourist operators must understand that to profit from these reefs, they must stay in good condition. No one wants to see dead coral reefs devoid of marine creatures but full of plastic.
  • The presence of dynamite fishing is something we cannot control – but can only hope that regulations become stricter as the locals realise the reef is worth more when kept healthy and alive.
  • The looming issue of climate change is always there. It is already showing signs of the reefs, and we can only hope this does not get worse.

We are currently thinking of ways to engage others in Lombok to make the above clear and find solutions, so we can collectively benefit from coral reefs in a way that does not harm them.

Thank you to the Yale-NUS students…

Not many people can learn marine survey methods for the first time and execute them as well as these students did.

We will now use this data to understand which sites are best for eco-tourism, and what needs to be done to protect Lombok’s coral reefs. We will continue to keep an eye on the coral reefs and monitor their health.

In a world where environmental degradation is so intertwined with our existence, we hope Lombok’s reefs can stay safe and healthy, so that Lombok’s people can sustainably benefit from them for years to come.

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Trip and activities carried out made possible thanks to the support of:

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Bad thoughts good thoughts

There’s something about rich sunset hues over wide skies and sprawling beaches that brings forth the urge to blog again, that urge I had been seeking for a while. Many a fleeting thought passed for the months since my last post but never an inspiration of a moment to expound on them further nor feeling the desire to be cathartic.

The recent sudden, unexpected passing of dear Rob Stewart who has inspired me on this path, definitely shocked my system a fair bit…yet I couldn’t help feeling too if conservation is something for the privileged or only the privileged has time or money to afford to be in. I love Rob Stewart to bits for his Sharkwater that has been most moving, yet if he didn’t come from a place of privilege to be able to experience diving and the oceans at a young age, would he have been able to have walked on this path with such dedication and commitment? I really hate how being on this path is such a struggle every single day mostly due to financial struggles. Are my convictions waylaid? Don’t get me wrong, I love Rob Stewart deeply and am very very affected badly by his premature passing, but nagging general thoughts about conservation and privilege remain.

So I have reached this stage where I am starting to feel tired that The Dorsal Effect is, in a sense endless and I can’t really run away from it or wrap it up yet also feeling frustrated about keeping in going and not having the capacity to think about expansion or growth or development. I feel guilty for harbouring such frustrations too but sometimes I just want to disappear into the ground.

I get frustrated when people ask me how do I change the fishermen’s minds or why is the boat trip so expensive. I did not change their minds not did I set forth to change anything in the fabric of their being. All I did was asked questions and helped them find out for themselves what are possible alternatives that they would be open to and then making sure I pay them well for that alternative. And the thing about it being expensive? If it is not as lucrative or even more lucrative than shark hunting, why on earth would the shark fishermen want to convert? I definitely am not here to cheapen the value of the alternative livelihood of ecotourism and I think only with good pay will the fishermen be more open to the needed regulations of ensuring people snorkel responsibly and carry out the trip responsibly as well (shall expound on that in a bit).

I feel like my heart dies a little now every time I am back in Lombok. I see other boat operators who are not necessarily ex shark fishermen, copying our snorkel trails and beach stops as well, yet they are so irresponsible about it, taking too many tourists to certain sites, or dropping their anchor on the corals, or allowing their guests to throw traah in the ocean or the beaches or even feeding the fishes and picking up the shells and marine life. Was so saddened to see a dead knobby sea star at the intertidal walk today, I can’t help but wonder if it was the doing of other irresponsible tourists and boat operators who were all too keen for a photo opportunity with the sea star, or maybe a boat docking crushed it in its path.

ravaged reefs from irresponsible tourists snorkelling
ravaged reefs from irresponsible tourists snorkelling

 

I guess a lot of negativity fills this post but in the heart of my being open and honest to all my posts, I figured I needed to be up front about my thoughts and feelings with myself and everyone else as I confront these demons over and over again. But I think I need to be clear about one thing too, and that is that change doesn’t happen overnight and sometimes or rather most times, the path of conservation exists on a spectrum than working towards a focussed end goal. Sometimes you pick other good things along the way of working towards something originally intended and that can be fulfilling too, like the children on The Dorsal Effect’s school trips being better acquainted with marine conservation or the need to protect sharks or awareness of sustainable consumption and reduction of plastics use even.

The fins we saw at the fish market on boat trip morning
The fins we saw at the fish market on boat trip morning

 

I cried when I saw a man on the streets of Lombok throw a rock at a stray dog and then having to see the dog cower in fear then wait a distance away for the man to leave before going to his spot to scavenge the food scraps of the bag of food he left behind, to the very depths of the paper bag. Why do the dogs here have to live such cruelly harsh lives without ever really knowing love and affection from humans?

I think more and more so, my heart is no longer with humans because of their negative impact on the world but I still really wish we could all start to see that we as humans are not apart from the animals we abuse, mistreat and harm indiscriminately but that we are all a part of this world together. I am heartened by the young and spritely couple, Vig and Shan, on this trip though, as I see them buying biscuits from the provision store to distribute out to the stray dogs on the Kuta streets. They help me see there is hope in humankind and they move me deeply with their compassion.

I am not giving up as I am already thinking of which group of students or corporates I should next work with doing up boards of responsible tourism guidelines for the sites we visit on the boat trip but yes my soul is saddened and my heart of heavier this very moment as I wish I could do so much more and so much quicker for the sharks and the stray dogs…but yes, don’t stay fixated on the end goal, focus on the process of hitting different markers in the spectrum, no matter how fluid or out of control it may sometimes get.

  1. No use of non reef safe sunscreen that would bleach corals
  2. No kicking or stepping on corals (dead zones are a very sad sight and corals take a very VERY long time to regrow)
  3. No touching, picking up or harrassing of marine life, please respect them in their natural habitat
  4. No dropping of anchor or corals
  5. No feeding of fishes at snorkel sites
  6. Please regulate the number of people who should be in the water at any given time
  7. No picking of shells or taking home of anything from the beaches or snorkel sites (the hermit crabs need their homes!)
awesome bunch of NSS boat trippers who love the oceans and animals so much!
awesome bunch of NSS boat trippers who love the oceans and animals so much!

 

It was really good visiting Paul Friese from Bali Sharks again though. Everytime the craziness of politics gets in the way of NGOs and good work and I wonder why organizations just don’t collaborate together for win-win and working ourselves out of what we do (as Warren Buffet says, the best philanthropic businesses are the ones where you work yourself out of business, or something like that, a reminder from Paul). So it is always heartening to speak with like minded friends who are passionate, like Paul. I totally don’t mind if The Dorsal Effect ceases to be relevant anymore simply because there is no more shark hunting and consumption happening or if the fishermen find other sustainable alternatives or even if they run the eco tours on their own co-op model but ethically and responsibly with attention paid to sustainability of the environment, reefs and sharks. Let’s start working towards win win with positive open sharing and collaborations now instead of selfish hoarding of resources, or coming to another country thinking you can make a positive change quickly, or coming with a saviour mentality of making a tangible change now (no thanks to how YEP is run sometimes..)

Some hope as we swim with the white tip reef sharks at Paul's Bali Sharks sanctuary.
Some hope as we swim with the white tip reef sharks at Paul’s Bali Sharks sanctuary.