The Catlin Seaview Survey team deployed this week to Timor-Leste, the youngest country in the Indo-Pacific region. This small country became independent from Indonesia in 2002, and has been making great strides in establishing new governance systems, including those for protecting marine resources.
The waters off Timor-Leste are rich with life and relatively pristine. The ocean currents course past the island nation, from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean, a migratory corridor for many species of whales, turtles and pelagic fishes.
Its infancy provides a unique chance for this country to chart a bold new course in their recognition of the importance of ocean resources, and to recognize and explore the potential value of marine conservation for both food security and ecotourism development.
One of the key conservation efforts has been the establishment of the Nino Konis Santana National Park. Located in the far east, this region is up-current of the rest of Timor-Leste, with replenishing larvae carried down the coast by the steady and powerful Timor Current. This park is the first site the Catlin Seaview Survey will visit and dive, conducting surveys along transects under consideration as no-take fisheries conservation zones, providing some of the first large-scale surveys of the coral habitat in these locations.
This positive move towards conservation in Timor-Leste is not without challenge. Marine education is increasing, and the youthful population of Timor-Leste is recognizing their connection to the sea, but unemployment in this developing economy still presents a challenge, and there remains considerable pressure on extractable natural resources. The images provided by the Catlin Seaview Survey will be used to both assist these educational needs as well as to provide basic benthic cover data, which can help guide management decisions and community efforts to protect their coastlines.
We are expecting wall diving with big currents, extensive soft coral fields, and some beautiful vistas of rugged mountains running down into clear seas. The reefs here have not suffered as much destructive fishing as other parts of the Coral Triangle, which is a great gain for the region. However, small-scale gillnet fishing and inter-tidal gleaning along the shore place pressure on stocks, and fish and invertebrate biomasses are quite depleted in places. Timor-Leste is an area with great beauty and promise for hope, with strong local commitment to marine conservation, and hope for overcoming the pressures that have degraded reefs in the Coral Triangle region. It has the potential to be a key site for coral research and recovery, and to provide a livelihood and sustenance for many coastal residents. The Catlin Seaview Survey is hoping to contribute to the growing marine conservation effort in Timor-Leste by providing key habitat data to support a sustainably managed marine environment in this new and optimistic nation.