Indonesia's Coastal Economy is on the Biorocks

Indonesia's Coastal Economy is on the Biorocks

Biorocks in action. Photo: Rani Morrow-Wuigk
Biorocks in action. Photo: Rani Morrow-Wuigk

Walking down the beach at Pemuteran Bay provides a glimpse into both the past and future of Indonesia’s coastal communities. One end of the beach serves as the mooring and launching area for the fleet of traditional fishing craft that have so long provided subsistence to the community. At the other is a community-driven reef restoration and conservation project that is changing not only the reef itself, but also the attitudes, livelihoods and economy of the entire region.

At the heart of this transformation is the application of a novel technological innovation known as Biorock for the creation of new coral reefs and fish habitats. The technology, developed by the late Prof. Wolf Hilbertz and his colleague Dr. Thomas Goreau of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, relies on low-voltage electricity to attract minerals through accretion to simple metal rebar structures placed in the water. The structures can be placed in a range of places because they're powered by a range of traditional and renewable electrical sources, including solar and experimental tidal and wave-generators.

There are now 100 Biorocks in use worldwide. Pioneers in eco-tourism such as small dive shop operators and beachfront hotels have been using them for years as unique ways of enhancing snorkeling and diving experiences.

Biorocks were first used to help reefs recover after the devastating coral bleaching caused by El Niño in 1998 and the severe strain on marine resources for income and food generation during the The Asian Financial crisis of the late 1990’s. Use of Biorock technology continues to increase as reef restoration and conservation move to the forefront of global environmental issues.

The first projects were a collaborative effort between community leaders, local businesses and environmental advocates. A local dive shop in Pemuteran, Reef Seen Aquatics, with funding from AusAID, has trained a number of local fishermen to PADI Rescue Diver standards and employed them as “Reef Gardeners”, working from within the community to enhance and protect the local reefs. A champion of the projects has been a local resort operator, Taman Sari Hotel, which has donated facilities and electricity to run the structures, and employed scores of villagers as staff serving the eco-tourists who come to the North Coast.

These relatively small-scale projects have realized immense benefits. A wealth of new economic opportunities have arisen in the case of Pemuteran and surrounding communities as international acclaim and recognition of the projects has ensured a stream of visitors to resorts professing an ethos of sustainability and restoration. The Indonesian government has recognized the project with its highest environmental award, the Kalapataru Adipura Award, while also providing several high-speed boats to be run by a group of community enforcement officers whose duty is to protect the reef from dynamite and cyanide fisherman.

Development pressures, increasing populations and rising demand for seafood have led to the near complete collapse of the health of Indonesian reefs. Indonesia, an archipelago with over 81,000 kilometers of coastline and more than 17,000 islands at the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, is considered to have some of the richest and most diverse marine ecosystems. Approximately 40 percent of the world’s fish species and 80 percent of the world’s coral reefs are found in its coastal waters. It is also the largest exporter of marine fish and corals in the world. But today only 6 percent of the coastline is considered pristine.

Coastal conditions are vital to Indonesia's economy. Approximately 70 percent of coastal communities depend directly on products from the sea — activities that generate over US $ 1.6 billion a year. A lack of effective management, coupled with the fact that the bulk of Indonesian fishing activity is done by migrant fishermen with limited vested interests in long-term sustainability who utilize destructive fishing techniques such as dynamite fishing and cyanide poisoning to harvest high-value fish species has contributed significantly to the massive losses in diversity and health of remaining reef systems.

But there is hope to be found in the waters of Pemuteran Bay and in the efforts of grass-roots reef conservation and restoration programs that have spread across Indonesia and beyond. Inspired by success and marked improvement in the environmental and economic health of participating villages, and driven by the intense need and internal drive of community leaders in Bali, Lombok and Sulawesi, Biorock installation is now being used not only for small-scale reef restoration and marine protected areas but also for its potential to attract fish for capture from surrounding waters, for use as cultivating platforms for sustainable harvest of marine products (seaweeds, corals, clams, oysters, lobsters etc.), and for erosion prevention.

Increased attention to Indonesia and the Coral Triangle — the 2.3-million-square-mile wedge between the Australia and the Asian mainland — are making a difference. Projects by governments, international academic research programs, and organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and Mercy Corps have provided a catalyst leading to the formation of the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security. The future of the millions of people who depend on the marine environment — for sustainable use of marine resources, environmental restoration, and economic stimulation — is at stake.

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