Indonesia's Gili Islands are the focus of a new model for marine protection. The program is rebuilding reefs and employing fishermen to guard them against destructive catch methods.
Many tourists come to Gili to see its rich marine life among the coral reefs
Gili Trawangan is famous for its white sand, sparkling water and rich coral reefs – a trifecta of tourist attractions that draws some 100,000 visitors each year.
Anna Walker arrived on the island more than a decade ago. She fell in love with Gili Trawangan and the spectacular diving opportunity that it, together with two neighboring islands, affords.
But what made the location ideal for underwater exploration - the coral reefs teeming with marine life - was under threat.
Local fishermen were using dynamite to catch large groups of fish.
"It either kills or stuns all the fish so they then just flare up to the surface," Walker told Deutsche Welle. "And then they just pick them all up and collect them like that."
Coral reefs around the world are under threat
Citizens on patrol
Today, she owns the Big Bubble Dive Shop. Like many of her neighbors, Walker lived through the tourist slump that followed the terrorist bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali in 2002.
"If anything good came out of the Bali bomb, it was like a little opening of our eyes to see what happens when there are no tourists around," she said.
Similarly, the destruction of local reefs could deal a permanent blow to Indonesia's status as an international diving destination.
With valuable local habitat on the line, seven dive shops decided to take action. Using money brought in by a head tax on their customers - a fee equivalent to about two euros each - the collective paid a police force of fishermen to patrol the reefs, not destroy them.
For Delphine Robbe, the head of a local group committed to saving the reefs, the system worked by giving fishermen a vested interest in promoting sustainability.
"The most important thing is educating people that they could actually make money from the coral reef, rather than just fishing as fish and selling it for a barbeque," she told Deutsche Welle.
Robbe heads a small group of locals committed to saving Gili's coral reefs
Building habitat with 'Biorock'
Yet the dynamite from years' past had already taken its toll – and the group's efforts to protect the surviving habitat still did not address the need for rehabilitation of the reef.
Robbe saw the answer in a new technology designed to create reefs more quickly. Pioneered by the late German scientist Wolf Hilbertz, "Biorock," or "Seacrete," involves planting wire structures of varying lengths and widths on the ocean floor.
By shooting low-voltage current through the metal, a layer of limestone that mimics natural coral forms on the wire.
"The reaction we're doing is the actual normal, natural reaction of the sun, the coral and all the minerals in the sea water," Robbe said, adding that the system worked by simply "speeding up" that process.
And speed is just one of Biorock's advantages. It grows at nearly five times the rate of natural coral, but it's also stronger and more resistant to disease and bleaching.
But there are some drawbacks: Walker said the Biorock looked "totally unnatural" in the water the first time she went diving after the team implanted the structure.
"Then after two or three days, it has already gotten its first coating of limestone, so then it stops looking like metal and looks a little more natural."
62 new reefs, and counting
The Gili Islands now boast 62 new reefs made of Biorock, and other countries have taken note. New reefs are taking shape in the Maldives, Thailand, the Philippines and the Caribbean.
In the future, Robbe hopes to power these projects with a renewable source of electricity. She said her group was searching for a volunteer electrician to set up a prototype that would use tidal and current energy and a turbine to power the Biorock.
The project could set an example for businesses on the Gili Islands: "That they should use different energies, and green energy to power all the AC, the swimming pool and things like this that they have on this island."
Biorock has also served as a teaching tool for university students from around the world who come to the islands to dive - and stay to help maintain the reefs. Robbe said that even the fish themselves are defending their new habitat.
"Some are on the Biorock, and they are telling you, 'That's mine, now you can get out.' (They) actually bite you or grab your hair because you are on their territory," she said.
Robbe hopes to spread the gospel of Biorock to other parts of Indonesia - but she knows that it's a huge task in a country of 17,000 islands.
Author: Sandy Hausman (arp)
Editor: Nathan Witkop