Indonesia lies at the center of the most diverse ecosystems of the world: the Coral Triangle. Covering just two percent of the global ocean, the Coral Triangle contains 75 percent of all coral species and 35 percent of the world’s coral reefs. It serves as a home and breeding ground for hundreds of thousands of fish and animals contributing to the food supply of the people living in the region and global fisheries.

Healthy coral reefs support commercial and subsistence fisheries, as well as jobs and businesses that support tourism and recreation. The coral reef structure also buffers shorelines against waves, storms and floods, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage and erosion.

Yellow band disease in Wanci Island. Photo credit: Courtney Couch

Yellow band disease in Wanci Island. Photo credit: Courtney Couch

Often, these coral reefs and sea creatures are referred to as the 21st century medicine cabinets because they are important sources of new medicines being developed to treat cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, heart disease, viruses and other diseases.

However, in recent years coral reefs have increasingly come under threat from climate change, overfishing, pollution and disease. In this region alone, more than 120 million people rely on reefs for their economic livelihood. Without long-term management of coral reef health, both the ecosystem and its benefactors face an uncertain future.

To tackle complex global issues such as this, USAID is tapping into the vast potential of the science and technology sector. In 2011, in conjunction with the National Science Foundation (NSF), USAID announced the Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) program. The program, administered by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, funds collaborative research partnerships between developing country scientists and NSF-funded American scientists. On behalf of the American people, USAID supports research to help conserve one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet and ensure the plants, fish animals and the many important roles of the coral reef are maintained for this and future generations.

Line transect in Wakatobi island. Photo credit: Courtney Couch

Line transect in Wakatobi island. Photo credit: Courtney Couch

PEER project researchers Dr. Jamaluddin Jompa, one of Indonesia’s prominent coral reef scientists and Director of the Center for Coral Reef Research at Hasanuddin University, and U.S. partner Dr. Drew Harvell, Associate Director for Environment at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, have set out to study the health of Indonesia’s coral reefs. The team measures declines in coral health by the prevalence of coral disease. Coral diseases, which have been on the increase worldwide since the 1970s, sometimes look like mold or rust and other times like the bleached-white bones of skeletons. They are key indicators of whether the reef ecosystem is out of balance.

The project aims to assess the impact of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) on reef resilience and coral disease containment. These no-fish reserves, which are areas protected under the Indonesian Government’s Coral Reef Rehabilitation and Management Program (COREMAP), serve as a sanctuary for marine life. This project will provide empirical data to show the importance of these preservation and conservation efforts. “We hope to provide additional evidence that MPAs have high impacts for the future,” said Dr. Jompa.

To ensure the reefs’ health and sustainability, long-term planning and management is key.

Focusing on local, manageable factors such as overfishing and coastal pollution, the team is developing new microbiological methods to better study their impacts—techniques which they hope will become incorporated into the COREMAP survey structure. Dr. Harvell asserts that with their findings, they will be able to evaluate how best to preserve nature while providing sustainable benefits to local communities.

The PEER program aims not only to fund researcher efforts with global impact but also to enhance scientific exchange and engagement. According to Drs. Harvell and Jompa, the collaboration has been very fruitful. For example, PEER mentoring and training has given Indonesian student researchers exposure to international science networks and state-of-the-art techniques while their American counterparts have gained international research experience.

Impacts can be seen in the classroom as well. Data gathered during the project have improved coral health case studies and curriculum in the Marine Science Department at Hasanuddin University. “As more and more students are becoming interested in coral reef education, we are building that knowledge foundation and investing in future generations,” said Dr. Jompa.

This PEER-funded project is part of a much larger effort to establish patterns of coral health worldwide. In conjunction with scientists from Australia, the team has been working on creating a larger Pacific network of coral health with comprehensive sustainability plans. Ultimately, said Dr. Jompa, “As the center of global marine biodiversity, these coral reefs belong not only to Indonesia, but to the world.”

Learn more about the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI) in the Philippines, which was held on Aug. 14.