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Protecting the Remarkable Coral Reefs of Raja Ampat, Indonesia

August 21, 2023

Zafer Kizilkaya of Turkey won the 2023 Goldman Environmental Prize for his successful efforts to establish an expansive network of marine reserves off the Turkish coast. But his marine conservation expertise extends far beyond the Mediterranean. For many years prior to his campaign in Turkey, Zafer worked as a marine biologist and National Geographic underwater photographer in the Indian and Pacific oceans, seeking to understand and interpret the remarkable marine biodiversity of those regions.

In August 2023, I spent 10 days with Zafer in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, on the western side of the island of New Guinea, surveying and photographing the extraordinary coral reefs of the area. We met with resort operators and government officials, seeking to find new ways to safeguard the world’s most biodiverse seas. Zafer has a plan to better protect the area, which is subject to increasing pressure from rapidly growing tourism and illegal fishing.

Sweetlips at Sewandarek in Raja Ampat (Photo: Michael Sutton)

The Coral Triangle—which includes parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Philippines—is the world’s center of marine biodiversity, harboring more species of corals and reef fishes than anywhere else. The 19th century biologist Alfred Russel Wallace developed his own theory of evolution there. Many scientists believe that the biodiversity of the Coral Triangle exceeds that of the Amazon rainforest.

Zafer acknowledges that Raja Ampat is already well-protected—at least on paper. Indonesia has established nine marine protected areas (MPAs) in the region, including the Southeast Misool MPA (346,000 hectares), the Dampier Strait MPA (357,000 hectares), and the West Waigeo MPA (271,000 hectares). The government manages the area through the Raja Ampat MPA Management Authority, but its resources are limited, and government officials admit that they are unable to effectively monitor and patrol this vast archipelago.

Zafer Kizilkaya, left, meeting with government officials in Waisai; Mike Sutton at right.

In Waisai, on August 15, we met with Syafri Tuharea, head of Indonesia’s regional MPA authority in Southwest Papua. His biggest concern for the region is the uncontrolled expansion of tourism, mostly from liveaboard dive boats, land-based resorts, and less expensive homestays. We observed rampant construction of new resorts and homestays in the area, which is known as a renowned destination for SCUBA divers from all over the world. Tuharea told us he has fewer than 90 employees within fewer than 10 outposts to patrol Raja Ampat’s MPAs. However, he is determined to better monitor tourism in the region and eventually establish capacity controls, which are commonly used to limit impacts in national parks and other heavily used protected areas worldwide. Tuharea and other government officials recognize that they will need help to patrol Raja Ampat and enforce the law. They are eager to establish public-private partnerships with local villages and tour operators.

Spine-cheeked anemonefish in Raja Ampat (Photo: Michael Sutton)

Public-private partnership is a familiar approach for Zafer, who worked with a local dive resort in north Raja to establish the Raja Ampat Sea Centre to support conservation and education in the region. He is also working with Global Conservation, an organization that seeks to strengthen the management of protected areas worldwide. Jeff Morgan, Global Conservation’s executive director, is actively seeking Zafer’s advice on installing short-range marine radar and high-resolution cameras, and funding additional ranger posts and patrol boats in Raja Ampat. Tuharea and the resort owners we met with are anxious to take advantage of these resources, which they feel can be put to good use monitoring impacts on coral reefs and popular dive sites.

Zafer is optimistic about the future of Raja Ampat and its rich marine resources. Although coral reefs in other areas such as Florida and the Caribbean have experienced bleaching and other damage from warming oceans associated with climate change, so far the reefs of Raja Ampat remain among the healthiest in the world. Zafer hopes that by monitoring and protecting these pristine reefs, we can learn how to sustain corals elsewhere. If the reefs of the Coral Triangle are more naturally resilient than others, perhaps we can learn how to safeguard reefs under threat in other places.

Nudibranch in Raja Ampat (Photo: Michael Sutton)

Zafer and his allies feel strongly that merely designating protected areas in places like Raja Ampat will not be sufficient to ensure their survival. Only by actively monitoring and patrolling marine reserves—with the assistance of local villages and tour operators—can these areas be truly protected for future generations. Indeed, in 2022 the parties to the UN Biodiversity Convention called for 30% of the world’s terrestrial, inland water, coastal, and marine areas to be in effective protection and management by 2030 (emphasis added). With Goldman Prize winners like Zafer Kizilkaya at work, I remain confident that we can achieve that ambitious goal.

Green sea turtle in Raja Ampat (Photo: Michael Sutton)
Michael Sutton

About the author

Michael Sutton

Executive Director

Mike is a respected environmental conservation leader with extensive experience managing nonprofit organizations, influencing public policy, advocating for natural resources, and guiding successful philanthropic efforts. His distinguished career has ranged from work with the National Park Service to senior conservation roles at the World Wildlife Fund, the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, the California Fish & Game Commission, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and National Audubon Society. Mike received his BS in Wildlife Biology at Utah State University; did graduate studies in Marine Biology at the University of Sydney, Australia; and, received a law degree with honors from George Washington University’s National Law Center. He joined the Prize in 2018.

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