What Lies Beneath. Restoring The Coral Reefs In The Time Of Covid 19.
Bali, one of the most beautiful islands on Indonesia's Southern Archipelago sits just a few miles off the 7,300 meters (24,400 ft.) deep Java Trench. This geographical phenomena, due to its immense depth creates a unique set of swirling currents creating what is known as ‘disturbed seas.’ This powerful movement of water creates a perfect environment in which the coral reefs surrounding Bali and its neighbouring islands thrive, providing essential nutrients for the 2,200 species of fish and 400 different types of coral.
For millennia Bali had always been surrounded by rich and vibrant coral reefs until the 1960s' when tourist numbers began to explode. Coral was seen as an ideal building material for the construction of much-needed roads, hotels, villas and general infrastructure. Adding to the coral’s woes was the incredibly destructive fishing practice of underwater blasting, widely used by local fishing communities. Prolonged destruction resulted in entire reefs being obliterated, denuding much of Bali's coastal fringe in the space of just two decades.
These devastating practices were eventually outlawed in the late '70s, and, by 2010 the LINI organization commenced regenerating projects assisting communities in restoring reefs by way of constructing artificial structures to which damaged and new coral could cling.
The primary focus was to preserve dwindling fish populations and restore habitats by way of building artificial reefs to provide alternative collection areas and thereby reducing the fishing pressure on natural reefs. Over time it has created alternative income sources for anglers, who, in addition to their daily fishing duties became involved in the making and deploying the artificial substrates, as well as nurturing coral tables and preparing coral plugs.
The work is relatively delicate; coral fragments are placed in plugs that fit tightly into the artificial structures' holes. These transplanted corals act as triggers that encourage wild, baby corals (planulae) to attach themselves to the artificial reef surfaces. Correct placement of an artificial coral can make it blend perfectly with the surrounding natural reef. Alternatively, placing these structures on the sandy bottom creates new habitats for various fish species and other marine life.
Corals are a diverse group of animals, and each one is specific in its growing requirements. Reef regeneration techniques in and around Bali have evolved after years of trial and error, but the work has paid off with some 'artificial' coastal reefs that are now between 12 and 15 years old and thriving. These relatively young broodstock colonies have already reached maturity and spawn on an annual basis.
One particular project I visited has created (albeit short – term) a program that has employed more than two thousand six hundred employees when, in the time of a devastating pandemic, paying jobs are tough to find. The Indonesian government has invested some $US 17 million into this project and plans to repeat the process on other endangered reefs around the archipelago. The work is labour intensive but having projects such as this one will go some way towards boosting economic recovery.
This particular restoration project involves placing large concrete and metal structures on the ocean floor, which will, in time, become covered in new growth coral. One particular piece, the 'Fish dome’ is a large structure with ample space inside for fish to hide while providing a perfect surface for corals and other marine organisms to settle on and grow. In a relatively short space of time, these domes quickly become secure refuges for large and diverse schools of fish. Their robust structure will last for decades, long enough for the natural reefs to recover and eventually engulf them.
Another is the 'Roti Buaya' ('crocodile bread'), a long and winding concrete structure resembling Jakarta's crocodile-shaped bread loaves. The surface of this particular design is extremely rough, with numerous holes and irregular ridges, perfect for new corals and organisms to cling to, settle on and grow.
The Balinese are a creative lot, and their creativity has extended to the design and construction of the reef structures. When I visited the site, the first section I came across consisted of thousands of purpose-built statues standing in long lines like an army ready for battle. In the next few months, these iconic statues will be placed in the centre of a ring of cylindrical, barrel-shaped 'tubs,' arranged in the shape of a Lotus flower.
In years to come, divers and snorkelers will be able to explore an underwater wonderland, by which time, the thousands of statues will be covered in new coral surrounded by millions of colourful tropical fish.
A latter-day Atlantis of sorts.
Coral reefs worldwide are at risk as climate change, population growth, pollution and coastal development threatens the health of these delicate eco-systems at an ever-increasing rate. The Innovative programs currently being undertaken on the Indonesian archipelago could be the answer to saving the planet's fragile reefs which are vital for the very survival of the tropical oceans.
Sometimes, out of bleak times, good things come, and this is a case in point where an innovative project, created in the most tragic of times will one day be a source of wonder for thousands of underwater explorers.
The world is indeed an amazing place.
Photography Copyright; Paul v Walters, E.J. Lenahan & Jonathan Stoffregen
Paul v Walters is the best selling author of several novels and anthologies of short stories. When he is not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his Bali house, he occasionally rises to scribble for several international travel and vox pop journals.