By Dyah Ayu Pitaloka
A group of volunteers, some still in their teens, walked up to the shoreline of Kondang Merak beach in Malang district, East Java.
Slowly they rolled up their jeans as small waves pounded their feet. They were each carrying pieces of coral that had been carefully attached to prefabricated wire mesh bearing the volunteers’ names.
The volunteers “donated between Rp 10,000 and Rp 50,000 ($0.88 to $4.40) each for this coral reef repopulation effort. Though there are also those who cannot afford to donate money but are able to give their time and power to plant coral reefs,” Andi Syaifudin said.
Andi is the chairman of Sahabat Alam (Nature’s Friend), which focuses on coral reef, mangrove and sea-turtle conservation around Kondang Merak beach.
The 5-square-kilometer area, located 62 kilometers south of Malang city, was once famous for being one of the most beautiful snorkeling and diving spots off the southern coast of Java.
“We fell in love with Kondang Merak because of its beautiful coral reefs and pristine white sands,” he said.
But since early 2000 the use of fish bombs and cyanide by local fishermen has contributed to the destruction of 80 percent of the local coral population.
With the reefs destroyed, residents in the area have lost their livelihoods, not only from dwindling fish populations but also from the declining number of divers visiting Kondang Merak’s five diving spots.
“Around five to 10 years ago we were able to get 50 kilograms of lobster each time we sailed out to sea,” local fisherman Edi said, adding that he could earn between Rp 400,000 to Rp 750,000 per kilogram.
“Now we consider ourselves lucky to get just 5 kilograms [of lobster],” he said.
Sahabat Alam has been teaching local fishing communities about the importance of coral reefs and how using fish bombs and cyanide in fishing poses a huge threat to their livelihoods.
“Lobsters like to hide in coral reefs and now the reefs have been destroyed,” said Edi, who joined Sahabat Alam’s coral repopulation drive. “Slowly we are realizing that we need to catch lobsters using techniques that will not harm the coral, by diving or using nets.”
The Malang district’s Maritime and Fisheries office noted that there are nine areas in Malang with critically damaged coral reef systems, including Kondang Merak. In these areas, coral reefs will disappear unless something is done.
Coral reefs not only provide a vital food source for the fish but also stop erosion and tidal waves.
At 10 more sites in Malang, coral reefs are considered fairly damaged, which means the reefs will be able to repopulate without human intervention if the damaging activities stop.
Wahyu Hidayat, local head of the Marine and Fisheries Agency, said the government has the necessary funding to repopulate the coral reefs but needs help from groups like Sahabat Alam for human resources and expertise.
“Any community willing to do real work will get our support,” he said.
Zainul Arifin, a Sahabat Alam member, said it is important to engage the local fishing community in conservation efforts.
Coral grows between 2 to 3 centimeters a month and needs to spend at least six months in nursery grounds before it can be planted in open water and survive on its own. During that period, they need constant care to keep sand and mold from getting into their pores and inhibiting their growth. That, Zainal said, is where the fishermen come in.
“A huge percentage of our donors’ money goes to the fishermen for this monitoring process. Without the involvement of the local fishing community it will be all for nothing,” he said.