Measuring Climate Change’s Impact on Timor’s Coral Reefs

One of the incredible resources available to the people of Com, and the majority of those living on Timor’s coasts for that matter, are the country’s spectacular coral reefs. Timor-Leste is situated right at the very south of the famed Coral Triangle, an underwater area with the highest marine biodiversity of anywhere on the planet. Home to some 75 percent of all known species of coral and 3,000+ species of reef fish, this marine area encompasses the oceans around the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, as well as Timor-Leste.

Map of the Coral Triangle via Wikipedia

Map of the Coral Triangle via Wikipedia

The importance of these reefs are not only environmental – they are incredibly lucrative to local communities as well. The fisheries and aquaculture in the region have an estimated value of $11.7 billion and reef and beach based tourism provides a revenue of approximately $12 billion annually. But conservation, tourism, and fishing do not always work hand in hand, so that’s where efforts by groups such as the Coral Triangle Initiative come in.

From their website, “The Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security (CTI-CFF) is a multilateral partnership of six countries working together to sustain extraordinary marine and coastal resources by addressing crucial issues such as food security, climate change and marine biodiversity.” It’s American-based glue, and major funding source, is USAID, with technical support from the NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association).

I managed to catch up with Rusty Brainard over the phone a few weeks ago while he was waiting to board a flight to Scotland. Mr. Brainard is the Division Chief of the Coral Reef Ecosystem Division at the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Center and has done extensive work in Timor as well as in the broader Coral Triangle as a whole.

Sign Designating Protected Species in Com

Sign Designating Protected Species in Com

ER: Tell me about some of USAID/NOAA’s efforts in Nino Konis Santana National Park and in Timor-Leste as a whole?

RB: There are four components of what we do. The first is creating maps of the coral reefs; you can’t manage your resources unless you know where they are. We are doing this by gathering high resolution satellite imagery to map the reef locations. The north is complete, but we are still working on the south because there is more sediment in the water and the imagery is less clear. We are also taking climate base line readings to measure climate change, which is obviously a big issue. Our third project is a census of marine life, quantitative abundance surveys to establish baseline observations of reef conditions.

ER: How do you all go about with these surveys?

RB: This June a 6 person team of fish biologists just finished 150 quantitative surveys on marine life in the north of Timor, which was a lot of visual observations and counting. We also have these devices we call ARMS, which are Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures, that are installed on the ocean floor. They record cryptic ocean biodiversity, which is basically the animals that hide when humans are around.

ER: Have you been able to make any conclusions from this data yet?

RB: We have found that reef resources are depleted significantly – everywhere there were humans using the reef, there were smaller numbers of fish and far fewer larger fish, particularly amongst the more desirable, longer-lived species, like groupers and sharks.

The ultimate aim of these efforts is to balance conservation with food security. Nino Konis and similar National Parks are important for the region, but they are only 1 to 2% of overall reef areas. We must look both inside protected areas and out, to balance human and natural resources.

Boys pulling a fishing boat from the water in Com

Boys pulling a fishing boat from the water in Com

ER: Climate Change and its impact on coral reefs are a growing global issue. Can you go into more detail on the Coral Triangle Initiative’s efforts surrounding climate change in Timor?

RB: We have established 10 baseline sites around the country, three on the south shore, one on the east, and the rest on the north shore. At each site we measure acidity, carbon chemistry, overall salinity, pH, saturation rate, and temperature. All of these are used to establish a baseline of carbon readings.

Calcium carbonate levels are significant to measure the calcification rate of corals and algae. In order for coral to grow, it needs a certain substrate of calcium carbonate, which helps the polyps attached to rocky surfaces and forms the basis of their skeletal growth. When you change the sea water chemistry, both corals and algea suffer badly. By mid-century, depending on which CO2 emission prediction is correct, many of these reef building species will no longer be able to produce the calcium carbonate that is essential to the reef structure. Only 1,000 species of coral can do this, but millions of species depend on this habitat to survive. We will lose the reef’s diversity.

ER: Have you already seen climate change’s impact on Timor’s reefs?

RB: We’ve established a baseline of calcification, but we don’t have data for what the rates were previously. We’ve taken coral bores to track it in decades past but we’re having difficulty taking these bores back to the United States. Timor-Leste is not signed on to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) so the NOAA can’t bring the bores out of the country.

When Timor first gained independence they signed on to a whole host of treaties without thinking of the long-term consequences, which caused lots of problems for them. The government is not against CITES, but is more wary of signing onto new treaties now. Hopefully they will ratify it soon.

The Great Barrier Reef has seen dramatic increases in calcification rates over the past few decades however.

ER: Bores? How does that work? Is it like tree rings?

RB: Yes, actually. Corals with an abundance of food tend to grow really fast and also tend to be more resilient to increased carbon emissions in the water. You can see this growth on the coral’s internal structures.

ER: Bores aside, all this doesn’t sound very positive. Is there any hope for the Coral Triangle?

RB: A lot of our observations about calcification come from the lab environment, but coral in the wild might be much more resilient than we think. Chemical changes in an experiment happen over the course of a few days while these changes happen over decades in the oceans. But chemical changes do also seem to have a devastating impact on coral reproduction, but we know very little at this point about coral’s life history.

Two Rocks, just doing their thing

Two Rocks, just doing their thing

ER: How are CTI’s efforts in Timor different from their efforts elsewhere in the Coral Traingle?

RB: Working in Timor is much easier because the country is much smaller, especially compared to Indonesia. They are also developing an economic system from scratch. Getting people to change is really hard but the government here didn’t even exist a decade ago. We are able to start from an eco-system based approach right off the bat, which is much less of a challenge than trying to get people to change.

But it’s also difficult. They have very little structures in place, particularly information structures. Politically, population wise, resource wise, it’s also a very different situation. It’s more similar to pacific islands like American Samoa in that sense.

ER: Are there any future project the CTI is planning to undertake?

RB: Our fourth big project is education. The Timorese are receiving a lot of assistance, but this often results in training after training after training, but not necessarily the capacity to afford or implement these trainings. USAID is developing a 5 year plan to support their knowledge needs into practice to help identify alternative livelihoods and to communicate positive strategies of conservation and fisheries management.

A big thanks to Rusty Brainard for risking missing his flight to take the time out to talk to me!

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