Not far from the Foja Mountains
, where a CI team recently discovered a "lost world" of rare plants and animals, another CI-led expedition has found a new trove of extraordinary marine biodiversity in a region known as the Bird's Head Seascape
, off the coast of Indonesia's Papua Province
Two Corners of the Bird's Head
Scientists recently surveyed two locations in the seascape and found more than 50 new species, including sharks, shrimp, and reef-building corals. The Missouri-sized marine region is home to more than 1,200 types of reef fishes and nearly 600 species of hard corals, plus whales, sea turtles, crocodiles, giant clams, manta rays, and dugongs – all indicating the Bird's Head as perhaps Earth's richest seascape.
Unlike the virgin wilderness of the Foja Mountains, however, these reefs already show signs of human impact and are now coming under increasing threat from a proposed national policy to increase commercial fisheries in the region.
The sites, Cenderawasih Bay to the northeast and the FakFak-Kaimana coastline to the south, are located at two "corners" of the Bird's Head Seascape – named for the distinctive shape of the peninsula in northwest Indonesian Papua. The seascape has been highlighted as a global priority for protection of its incredible diversity and sustainable management of its important fisheries.
Unmatched Findings for Marine Biodiversity
Led by CI's Mark Erdmann, the team of scientists set out to complete the study of the Bird's Head area which began five years ago. In less than six weeks, they recorded a total of eight mantis shrimp species, 24 fish species, and 20 species of coral that are new or likely to be new to science. Many are believed to be endemic to the seascape, meaning that they are found nowhere else on Earth. Among the new species were two kinds of epaulette shark – small, slender-bodied bottom-dwellers that use their pectoral fins to "walk" across the seafloor.
Also discovered were several new species of "flasher" wrasses – named for the brilliantly colored displays the normally drab males flash to entice females to mate – along with fairy basslets, damselfishes, and a new jawfish. The scientists recorded a total of 1,233 species of coral reef fishes, at least 23 of them endemic.
Of more than 600 known species of coral in the region, nearly all were found within the team's survey sites. Six sites surveyed proved to have the highest diversity of hard corals ever recorded, each with more than 250 species within a single hectare.
"That's more than four times the number of coral species of the entire Caribbean Sea in an area roughly the size of two football fields," says Erdmann. "These reefs are literally 'species factories' that require special attention to protect them from unsustainable fisheries and other threats so they can continue to provide benefits to their local owners."
A Sea of Threats
While the coral reefs of the Bird's Head Seascape remain in relatively good shape, there is widespread evidence of bomb-fishing – a practice used to stun fish that are collected for food, or as bait for the lucrative shark fin industry. "On several survey dives, we heard reef-shattering explosions in the vicinity," says Erdmann.
Cyanide fishing is used to catch live lobster, grouper, and Napoleon wrasse for export to Asian live seafood markets, and this further threatens marine ecosystems in the area. Additionally, mining and logging in nearby coastal regions threaten to degrade water quality, possibly encouraging a population increase of the destructive crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) that leave a trail of dead coral in their path.
A plan to transfer fisheries pressure from Indonesia's over-fished western seas eastward toward the Bird's Head region may exacerbate these threats. While human population density is low in this remote corner of the world, the coastal people of the Bird's Head are heavily dependent on the sea for their livelihoods.
"The coastal villages we surveyed were mostly engaged in subsistence fishing, farming and gathering, and require healthy marine ecosystems to survive," explains Paulus Boli, a researcher from the State University of Papua who led a socioeconomic component of the expeditions. "We are very concerned about the potential impact of planned commercial fisheries expansion in the region, and urge a precautionary approach that emphasizes sustainability over intensive exploitation."
A Call to Action
Only 11 percent of the seascape is currently protected, most of it in the Teluk Cenderawasih National Park that is supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Indonesia (WWF-Indonesia). Results of the CI-led surveys, however, have helped focus government attention on the region.
"We are now closely examining the survey recommendations and may support the development of a network of fisheries reserves in the region to safeguard this priceless national heritage," says Yaya Mulyana, head of the Indonesian Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Affairs' Marine Conservation Department.
"We are delighted that these results have succeeded in drawing much deserved attention to the Bird's Head Seascape and its incredible marine biodiversity," says Ketut Sarjana Putra, Director of CI's Indonesian Marine Program. "We are committed to working closely with both the national and local Papuan governments to help them manage this globally significant asset for the benefit of future generations."