Irian Jaya's Coral Reefs Among Richest in the World

7/8/2001

World Record of Coral Fish Species

Washington, DC - Marine scientists believe they have located unparalleled species diversity in coral, fishes and mollusks among the extremely remote and previously unexplored reefs of Indonesia's Raja Ampat Islands.

Conservation International's (CI) Marine Biodiversity Program recently conducted a Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) expedition in Raja Ampat, located west of Irian Jaya, Indonesia, near the heart of the "coral triangle," an area encompassing reefs of northern Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. CI's Dr. Gerald Allen, expedition leader and renowned expert on coral reef fishes, broke the world record twice for the number of species seen in a one-hour dive -- 281 on one dive and 283 on another. He registered 950 species overall during the three-week expedition in March and April.

"The Raja Ampats are amazingly rich in marine biodiversity but the reefs are threatened by illegal fishing and other human activities. The results of our assessment point to the need to work closely with the local communities to better manage and protect this stunning and vital area," said Dr. Sheila McKenna, CI marine biologist and one of the expedition leaders. > The total number of fish species in Raja Ampat is predicted to exceed 1,100, including three, possibly four, new species. Damselfishes, one of the most abundant inhabitants of coral reefs, totaled more than 108, nearly as many as those recorded for all of the reefs surrounding the entire continent of Australia.

In addition to fish, the scientists recorded 450 species of coral, more than half the world's total, with at least seven new to science. Dr. Fred Wells of the Western Australian Museum recorded nearly 700 mollusks, the highest number recorded by any Marine RAP expedition.

"The Raja Ampat Islands are certainly deserving of World Heritage status and every effort should be made to conserve them," said team member Dr. John Veron, international coral authority at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and author of the major three-volume book on the corals of the world published last year. Jabz Amarumollo and Mohammed Farid, Indonesian scientists working with CI, found that the local communities are dependent on the health and biodiversity of these reefs. More than 90 percent of the adult population is engaged in subsistence-level fishing, and while commercial exploitation is minimal, some people are introducing the use of damaging fishing practices such as the use of cyanide and dynamite.

The RAP team included 10 Indonesian and international marine scientists, who inventoried the fauna of the islands' reefs, assessed their condition and conservation status, and researched the use of marine resources by the nearly 8,000 people living in the 22 small communities around the islands.

Globally, some 11 percent of coral reefs have been destroyed and the health of another 16 percent are compromised. Major threats to reefs include coastal development and associated run-off, pollution and over-fishing and damaging fishing practices, as well as bleaching, believed to be linked to global warming. Coral reefs function much like trees in rainforests, providing habitat for the rich diversity of reef species. Reef ecosystems provide a potential source of pharmaceuticals that has been largely untapped, and they are the major tourist attractions for many nations.

For the reefs in Raja Ampat, CI's Marine RAP team is recommending that guidelines for management strategies be drafted with national and local government and village leaders to ensure the long-term survival of their natural heritage.

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The Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) of the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International sends teams of scientists to little known regions that are suspected or known to be biologically diverse and are threatened.

CI's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) was created in 1990 to rapidly provide biological information needed to catalyze conservation action and improve biodiversity protection. Small RAP teams of expert international and host-country tropical field biologists conduct rapid first-cut assessments of the biological value of selected terrestrial, freshwater and marine areas to provide conservation recommendations based on the their biological diversity, uniqueness and the human threats to their integrity.

Results from RAP surveys are immediately made available on the Internet and in preliminary reports. Final reports, with complete species lists, are published in the series RAP Bulletin of Biological Assessment within a year of each expedition.

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