BANDA ISLANDS – As tourists start flocking back to post-Covid Indonesia, there’s encouraging news from the fabled Banda islands where divers report only isolated instances of the rampant dynamite fishing that has devastated reefs elsewhere across the vast archipelago.
The center of a fierce struggle for trade and colonial dominance going back to the early 1500s, a week-long schooner voyage around the Spice Islands shows conservationists are gaining ground in encouraging local fishermen to preserve, not blast, their marine life.
Led by the Coral Triangle Centre (CTC), a Bali-based non-profit organization, communities on Banda Neira and the nearby islands of Ay and Rhun are monitoring a network of three Marine Protected Areas (MPA) to safeguard one of the world’s most diverse and distinct marine ecosystems.
The CTC is dedicated to transforming marine resource management and safeguarding the future of endangered coral reefs stretching six million square kilometers across Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands.
As zoning regulations to protect ecosystems change the social dynamics in the Bandas (Population: 20,924), community support for conservation, incorporating local customs into management plans and introducing new income streams, is crucial to the sustainability of the protection network.
The Banda Sea mount is a breeding ground for leatherback sea turtles, the endangered Napolean wrasse, brightly-colored Mandarin fish and yellowfin tuna, as well as a multitude of coral reef species. It also lies on an important migratory route for blue whales and other marine mammals.
Banda’s hardy fishermen make their living hand-lining for tuna and deep-water snapper, often landing fish weighing in at more than 50 kilograms from their impossibly small boats which fetch good prices on the US market.
CTC’s current focus is on preserving more than 50 species of snapper and grouper around the 11 volcanic islands, which rise out of the 7.2-kilometer Weber Deep in the Banda Sea, the deepest part of the world’s oceans that is not a trench.
CTC executive director Rili Djohani, whose romance with the Bandas goes back three decades, says her team is building on the islands’ age-old sasi system in which areas are routinely closed off to help replenish the fish population and stocks of shellfish, sea cucumber and lobster.
Community surveillance patrols assist in monitoring the coral reefs and, with the active cooperation of specially-trained fishermen, CTC collects data on resource use, which is then shared with the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.
Common across most parts of Indonesia, reef blasting has never been a major problem in the Bandas’ because of its dramatic drop-offs, which make it impossible to retrieve the stunned schools of fish before they sink into the depths.
Most of the damage to marine life in the islands is caused by over-fishing and the use of traps camouflaged in broken coral, but even those practices are slowly being overcome as local fishermen come to realize the long-term benefits of conservation.
The government has made significant progress with its Coral Reef Rehabilitation and Management Program since the use of bombs and cyanide was belatedly outlawed in 2004. But spotty law enforcement has allowed the practice to continue in more isolated regions.
Reef blasting has devastated such pristine areas as the Komodo National Park, a World Heritage site and home of giant, flesh-eating monitor lizards, and other areas along the Nusa Tenggara island chain, east of Bali.
Usually, the bombing occurs in shallow waters where the fish can be gathered on the seafloor. Lacking refrigeration, the errant fishermen can’t stray far from coastal towns so they can get their catch to market before it spoils.
Marine biologists say larger boats equipped with ice and deck-mounted compressors and hoses still operate off northern Flores and Sumbawa islands and also around Sulawesi to the north, dynamiting schools of tuna at depths of 25-30 meters.
Its relative isolation has saved Raja Ampat, the pristine archipelago on West Papua’s Bird’s Head peninsular. But that doesn’t apply to its white tip and grey reef sharks, harvested only for their fins which once sun-dried can be stored for long periods.
Originally made from dynamite left over from World War II, fish bombs are assembled these days from legally obtained agricultural fertilizer, which is soaked in kerosene and placed in bottles with a small homemade detonator.
Such destructive practices, going back to a surge in demand for seafood in the 1980s, continue to be one of the biggest threats to the coral reef ecosystem and inevitably to the livelihood of the fishermen themselves.
Look no further than the small island of Molana, 160 kilometers northwest of the Bandas and just east of Ambon, the Maluku province capital, where bombing has turned the reefs into a depressing field of rubble.
Experts are scornful of costly coral restoration projects. Left alone, they say reefs will revive themselves, shown in the recovery of coral on the lava flow from the 1988 eruption of the Gunung Api volcano, lying across the narrow channel from Banda Neira.
“All that needs to be done is remove whatever killed the reefs and make sure a suitable substrate is available for new coral larval recruits,” says Robert Delfs, a senior associate at Bali-based Starling Resources and a veteran explorer of eastern Indonesian waters.
In the Komodo National Park, divers report corals have reappeared naturally in many heavily bombed areas. American scientist Helen Fox’s elegant idea to encourage regrowth? Scatter limestone boulders where only rubble remains, a rehabilitation tactic that has proven to work.
While Covid has taken a toll on Banda Neira’s district capital, its pot-holed streets now lined by dilapidated and abandoned buildings, the first small groups of foreign divers are returning to savor the region’s undersea wonderland.
It hasn’t always been this peaceful. Near the former Dutch governor’s deserted office, the overgrown ruins of a church attest to the bloody sectarian violence which swept the length of the Moluccas in 1999-2002, killing an estimated 5,000 people.
In a well-known incident on Muslim-majority Banda Neira, the late traditional leader Des Alwi faced down a mob intent on lynching Christian refugees cowering in his seaside Maulana Hotel, where Princess Diana and rocker Mick Jagger were former guests.
Once the world’s only source of the spice, most of the islands still cultivate plantations of nutmeg (and associated mace), the skin selling in its dried form for more than US$8 a kilogram and the flowers for up to $16.
Starting out as a treatment for plague and also valued among the European elite for its hallucinogenic properties, it remains an aromatic addition to dishes and has more recently become popular for its health and beauty benefits.
With divers arriving on liveaboard boats or landing on Banda Neira’s tiny runway that leaves little room for error, nutmeg and the long and bloody history surrounding it has become a secondary attraction to Banda’s superb coral walls.
But while sustainable fisheries and maritime tourism will help keep the Banda economy alive, that will only be because its 3,300 fishermen have joined in the work of protecting the spectacular gardens of coral around them – and the fish that thrive along with them.