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Australian marine scientist works to protect coral reefs and fish populations in Indonesia

Siobhan Heatwole
Siobhan Heatwole at Mars Symbioscience Mariculture facility in Sulawesi.

Supplied: Darren James

Coral reefs in Indonesia are being adversely affected by overfishing, pollution and tourism, but on the island of Sulawesi an Australian marine scientist is doing her bit to support rehabilitation efforts.

Siobhan Heatwole is volunteering in the port town of Makassar, helping to educate the local population about more sustainable practices to protect the ocean and marine life well into the future.

"Some people in Indonesia use dynamite and cyanide fishing to catch fishes, which kills a lot of fishes that are not the intended targets, and damages and kills a lot of coral," says Siobhan.

"If the destructive fishing practices cease, then yes, with time the reef can often recover. Coral takes a long time to grow though, so it will take a long time for a damaged reef to fully recover."

As a Coral Reef Rehabilitation Advisor Siobhan is passionate about conserving the environment, and believes more needs to be done to help communities strike a balance between making a living and protecting their local environment.

"When I saw the reef rehabilitation assignment in Makassar advertised [with AVID], it grabbed me straight away," she says.

"I had been working as a marine researcher studying the impacts of human disturbances on coral reefs. My work had implications for conservation, but was more theoretical. I thought it would be great to put some of that knowledge into practice, and get involved in a project ‘on the ground’ where I was actively contributing to conservation and promoting sustainable fishing practices by working with local people."

Siobhan and her team at Mars Symbioscience are working towards giving these damaged reefs a ‘kick start’ in their recovery by putting down structures that act as a base for new corals to grown on, by attaching healthy coral fragments to those structures.

Siobhan is helping local staff
Siobhan is helping local staff at Mars Symbioscience Mariculture facility in Sulawesi.

Supplied: Darren James

The impact of tourism

It's not just the local population who need to think about how their actions are impacting the local environment.

Since working on the island Siobhan has observed some of the negative impacts tourism is having on the coral reefs in Indonesia.

"Sometimes scuba divers, snorkelers and swimmers will stand on, bump or kick corals, which breaks them. In areas where there is a high volume of tourists, the reefs can be quite damaged because of this, as well as from boats anchoring and breaking the coral.

"Rubbish generated from tourist activities, and polluted water from coastal development and coastal activities contributes to damaged reefs in areas with high tourist traffic. Again, it is probably reversible, if the issues causing the damage are fully addressed and the reef is given enough time to recover."

Coral reef near the north of Sulawesi in Indonesia.

Our oceans, our future

June 8 marks World Oceans Day, providing an opportunity to discuss ways to protect and conserve the world’s oceans.

Siobhan's has been working with her team to gain the trust of local communities and involve them in the decision making processes about the reef rehabilitation they do.

"The huge amount of community engagement that my organisation has done has really helped the communities to understand what we are doing, why, and what needs to be done in future to help ensure a healthy reef and fish population," says Siobhan.

"Because of this, in general the communities are supportive of my organisation’s work, and by extension, mine.

"When the choice is doing something destructive and eating that day, or being more environmentally friendly but not eating, of course you are going to choose ‘eat’. So to encourage people to move away from destructive fishing practices to more sustainable ones, you need to provide them with some alternatives. My organisation is helping to provide alternatives to cyanide fishing, by supporting locals to set up aquaria where they can raise ornamental fishes in captivity and sell them to the aquarium trade as a more viable, sustainable business."

Siobhan Heatwole with Isnita Khairunnisa
Siobhan Heatwole with Isnita Khairunnisa, Laboratory Technologist.

Supplied: Darren James

Each year over 500 Australian volunteers like Siobhan travel overseas to live and work in local communities as part of the AVID program.

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