Community-based conservation of coral reefs and fisheries in West Papua


Indonesia’s coral reef fisheries are estimated to be worth $1.5 billion dollars annually, with reef-based tourism generating $127 million. However, without robust management systems, their current rate of degradation is a direct threat to local food security and livelihoods. Within Indonesia, the Birds Head Peninsula (BHP) of West Papua is recognised as the global epicentre of marine diversity, but a lack of resources and information currently limits evidence-based conservation action to address degradation of its reef ecosystems.

  • Sustainable Development Goals

    This project examined the following SDGs:

    SDG 1 – No Poverty
    SDG 2 – Zero Hunger
    SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-being
    SDG 4 – Quality Education
    SDG 8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth
    SDG 11  Sustainable Cities and Communities
    SDG 12  Responsible Consumption and Production
    SDG 13 – Climate Action
    SDG 14 – Life Below Water
    SDG 17 – Partnerships for the Goals

    Find out more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Project description

Although Indonesia has exceeded its target of establishing 20 million hectares of marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2020, and MPA establishment itself is an important milestone towards conservation, it does not guarantee protection. Of 172 MPAs established, only three achieve level-3 status (minimally managed), with most level-2 (conservation area established) or level-1 (conservation area initiated). They need to attain Level 5, a sustainably funded MPA that improves community welfare.

Damage to coral reef systems around the Bird’s Head Peninsula (BHP) in West Papua, Indonesia, was observed during a scoping project in 2019. Working with partners from the University of West Papua (UNIPA) and community conservation specialists Creative Action Tank (CAT) we undertook coral reef health assessments to identify threats and engage communities interested in developing conservation strategies (Map 1). Regional government supported our survey team with logistical support and we trained a team to deploy innovative 3D and acoustic technologies for rapid reef assessment.

Around the BHP reef system damage ranged from severe to minor resulting from a plethora of threats as a result of weak marine resource management. We observed destructive fishing practices, depleted fish stock and pollution around eastern BHP. Although the North Raja Ampat region of BHP consists of mostly healthy reef ecosystems the local tourism-based economy is booming, and under-regulated marine activities are already showing negative impacts to reefs.

Challenges surrounding management of reef ecosystems are increasing due to unsustainable development and marine activities materialising in nutrient impacts, sedimentation, and pollution. With funding from the Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF, Jan-Mar 2020) we are engaging policymakers by utilising data coproduced with local stakeholders to i) address under-regulated tourism, ii) enhance marine protected areas, iii) recommend solutions.

There is an urgent need for effective monitoring and robust management structures for MPAs. Management challenges are exacerbated by frequent structural and personnel changes in Indonesian government. Recognising the ever-shifting nature of authority, personnel and government priorities, effective sustainable management lies at the community level. However, identifying the delivery system capable of engaging marine resource management within traditional or local systems is usually the limiting step in implementing an otherwise practical solution.

The ‘paraecologist model’ pioneered by the University of Sussex, is an effective delivery system for engaging communities in addressing challenges of local relevance. We have won international recognition for its application in South America and Papua New Guinea, establishing over 140km2 of community-protected areas generating significant social and economic benefits. The approach identifies, engages with, and builds capacity of local ‘champions’ who play crucial roles in change processes. Paraecologists are community-level staff specially trained to carry out a range of technical tasks to address issues of local relevance, including collection of environmental or social data, data-basing, analysis, interpretation and dissemination of results to decision-makers – playing key roles as local ‘change agents’.This transition-driven form of ‘civic science’ recognises that to address environmental problems citizens need to have agency, and that actions to improve situations require social learning between the multiple stakeholders. Understanding local context is key, requiring engagement and the building of trust. Action is ‘co-created’, not simply driven by science or policymaking but instead supported by science, social science and new forms of governance.

This IDCF/SSRP project builds on scoping work to build the capacity of network partners (UNIPA/CAT/UoS) to deploy a targeted marine paraecologist programme. Training is underpinned by transdisciplinary research to build a team to engage coastal communities in monitoring and sustainable management of coral reef habitats and fisheries in West Papua.

Timeline and funding


July 2020-June 2021


SSRP-IDCF funding


  • A gradient of anthropogenic impact is investigated, represented by 4 sites at East Birds Head (pollution/overfishing/bleaching/blast-fishing) and West Birds Head (tourism impact).
  • Standardised reef surveys: 50m permanent transects established to compare classic standardised methods with 3D reef imaging and stereo-video survey.
  • Rapid Anthropological Analysis (RAA) surveys: trained partner staff engage community to reconstruct sea ecologies and histories.
  • Statistical analysis: correlation, regression analyses and distance based principal components analysis used to evaluate coral health, fish community diversity and biomass, and to compare standard and video methodologies.
  • Cost-effectiveness and potential for community-based data collection investigated for both RAA and stereo-video ecological assessments.

Listen to this audio recording of a healthy coral reefs. Reefs are noisy environments and Indonesian fishers use wooden oars held close to their ears as amplifiers to determine when they are above healthy reefs for fishing. We are exploring the potential of acoustics in assessing reef health based on sounds generated by fish and the distinctive crackling of snapper shrimp:

Watch this video which shows an example of a 3D reef image collected using low cost underwater cameras that we convert to 3D models to explore development of reef monitoring tools that can be used easily by communities yet recognised by policymakers:

3D Reef Image

The team

Where we worked

West Papua, Indonesia.