Destructive starfish and explosive fishing: The everyday people restoring reefs, one coral at a time

Do you get frustrated with not being able to make real physical change? There are conservation efforts where people like you and me can make a real difference. Photographer Elizabeth Fitt reports back from her tenure working with in the seas around Borneo, restoring reefs one coral at a time.

Armed with kitchen tongs and tent pegs, glove encased hands clutching a plastic crate, a group of divers descends into the shallows of a small island deep in the Celebes Sea off Borneo. 

They are Crown of Thorns hunters. 

Actually, they’re just normal people like you and I, who have chosen to travel to Borneo to volunteer at the Tropical Research And Conservation Centre (TRACC) and they are in the water to remove as many Crown of Thorns starfish as they can find, due to the fondness of this species for eating coral polyps like there’s no tomorrow.

The 2017 release of Netflix documentary Chasing Coral threw the issue of coral bleaching and what it could mean for our planet and ourselves into stark relief in a way that the mainstream had rarely been exposed to. 

The sheer magnitude of the problem and its potential impact is huge and for many the message of this phenomenally well shot documentary was simply too large to grasp in any meaningful way. 

Hot on its heels came the publication of various papers documenting coral colony fragmentation as a method for speeding up coral growth to a point where results are measurable in months rather than years. Then came more good news stories of research vessels discovering unprecedented coral bleaching recovery rates. It was lovely to go from feeling that all is lost, to hope that we can potentially pull the marine ecosystem back from the brink of collapse simply by trusting in the researchers and hoping for the best. 

“Previously an expanse of desolate dead coral rubble, the house reef now supports 245 documented fish species and 167 kinds of invertebrate”

But bleaching is not the only issue faced by coral, and not everyone is happy with the crossed fingers method of combating anthropogenic impacts on global ecosystems. 

Many people would like to do more, but it often feels almost impossible when you aren’t a specialist, a scientist, or a politician. Many of us try nonetheless. 

Sometimes this looks like taking responsibility for purchasing decisions and only spending on products that fit sustainable principals. Sometimes it looks like always turning the lights off when leaving a room, not indulging in single use plastics and carrying around a metal drinking straw and non disposable coffee cup

And sometimes it looks like heading out to TRACC, in deepest darkest Borneo, to get your hands dirty creating artificial coral reef systems and experimenting with coral transplanting and maintenance techniques. While it may seem quite extreme, there are people out there doing just that. 

Tucked away in a far flung corner of the Celebes Sea, is a tiny palm encrusted island that TRACC calls home. Everyone else calls it Pom Pom Island. 

Living in tents, most of the people here are not scientists, or coral biologists, or marine specialists of any sort. They’re normal people who have decided to make an active difference above and beyond what’s possible in day to day living.  They’ve come out here to involve themselves in TRACC’s self proclaimed mission of “Saving the ocean, one turtle, one shark, one coral at a time”

“Most of the people here are not scientists, or coral biologists, or marine specialists of any sort”

Battling against bomb fishing

Beginning with the house reef on Pom Pom island in 2011, TRACC has been battling devastation caused by decades of bomb fishing for almost seven years. Previously an expanse of desolate dead coral rubble, the house reef now supports 245 documented fish species and 167 kinds of invertebrate (according to a 2017 biodiversity survey headed up by James Cook graduate Alia Rosedy). 

It’s inspiring stuff. Bomb fishing was made illegal in 1985 and is policed in these waters. While the frequency has dropped it is still used as a fishing method by some fishermen here, as the conservation volunteers at TRACC know only too well. Most days they hear and feel the distant impact of bombs one to two kms away while diving, “You really feel it go through your body, in your gut and your bones – it goes right through you – it’s a shock. Like a sudden pressure being pushed against you and then taken away,” explains Matthew Lynn, a volunteer from Australia. 

These bombs cause enormous damage – an area up to five metres in diameter is decimated. The fish either die outright or are mortally wounded as their swim bladders rupture. The coral, blown to smithereens, dies where it falls and can then no longer fulfil its role in providing the crucial building blocks on which the entire reef’s ecosystem depends. 

Great empty circles of dead rubble pockmark the reef. Permanent scars in the fabric of an ecosystem, in return for a small boatload of fish.  

“You definitely feel it emotionally as well as physically,” Lynn says, “You’re scared and then sad at the same time. Because you know that the hard work we put in here is being reversed elsewhere in a split second.”    

Biodiversity becomes unbalanced

The reef system around Pom Pom Island was subject to such extensive bomb fishing in previous decades that it was almost entirely destroyed. 

Once destruction has gone beyond a certain point, the food chain becomes so disrupted that most species cannot be supported and the bottom drops out of biodiversity levels. From this stage it is very difficult for an ecosystem to rebound. 

TRACC’s aim is to help catalyse a healthier reef by providing stabilisation and structures suitable for soft coral, hard coral and sponges to grow on. Volunteers then plant these structures with corals to give new growth a head start. Given the right conditions, at this point nature takes over – fish and invertebrates are attracted to the structures for shelter and the food that grows on them. This forms an environment where they can breed. Greater numbers of small fish attract predators, until eventually a complete food chain has formed from the bottom up. 

This process has to happen in balance, if it doesn’t, an effect known as a trophic cascade can cause collapse in much the same way as a set of dominoes pushing each other over. At TRACC there are some very good signs – several small shark species are now permanent inhabitants of the house reef – these apex predators are an indication of a complete, functioning food chain. 

And there are some not so good signs – there is currently an outbreak of Crown of Thorns starfish, munching their way through as many coral polyps as they can get their spiky purple and black arms on. In a balanced ecosystem, the Crown of Thorns would be controlled by its natural predators – Parrotfish, Harlequin Shrimp and Giant Triton Snails. Because this reef is still so fragile and there are not enough of each predator species, the potential for lasting damage from the Crown of Thorns is huge. So the volunteers go out and cull them on a regular basis. They often collect 40 plus COTs in a single 60 minute dive. This goes some way to protecting the coral as it reduces the breeding population, but the issue is ongoing and they need all the help they can get. 

“I left TRACC after eight months with a marine science A Level, 300+ dives, a Divemaster certification and invaluable experience in coral reef restoration”

Who are the volunteers?

Volunteering at TRACC is for many a life-changing experience, according to the reviews left by volunteers from all over the world on social media. 25 year old Cameron Conklin, a 2017 volunteer says of her experience,

“Where do I start? I can’t even begin to explain what my time at TRACC has meant to me, or how it’s changed and benefited me. I arrived in January 2017 with absolutely no marine science background, 17 dives and no experience in conservation work. I left TRACC after eight months with a marine science A Level, 300+ dives, a Divemaster certification and invaluable experience in coral reef restoration.”

Not everyone at TRACC comes from abroad, there are plenty of Malaysian volunteers and science interns too. Members of the nearby Bajau Laut community – a stateless people often referred to as Sea Gypsies – have been involved with TRACC since the organisation set up. 

Several Bajau Laut people have been taught to scuba dive by TRACC including Khairul Ejam, 20, who has almost completed his PADI Rescue Diver qualification. For him, diving and spending time with TRACC has changed his view of the marine world,

“Things have changed for me. Now I would only use fishing methods that don’t cause destruction to coral reefs. I feel pity for the current situation. When I dive and I see what’s around me I feel this: happy when there are many fish, because the livelihood of my people depends on fish and they can feed their families. Not good when there aren’t many fish because then my people aren’t able to eat anything,” he explains.

Khairul and other members of his community involved with TRACC have taken what they’ve learned back to their own island and he intends to continue to expand on this, “I’ve learned a lot of methods to put artificial reefs in the water. So now I’m very well versed in making bottle reefs, turtle reefs, coral biscuits. I want to make what has been done here on my island because I’ve seen what has happened with the fish here at TRACC.”  

TRACC and its volunteers are committed to working with the Bajau Laut to help evolve attitudes in a more sustainable direction and support the community as stewards of the marine environment that supports them.

Island life at TRACC is certainly idyllic, from living and working among like-minded people with a beneficial and inspiring purpose, to seeing the wonders that have now begun to inhabit the house reef since TRACC has been working on it. 

Frogfish, Mandarin Fish, Blue Ring Octopuses, thirty plus Nudibranch species, Barracuda, Cuttlefish, huge Bumphead Parrotfish, Bamboo Sharks, teeny Skeleton Shrimp and so much more. TRACC’s efforts really do seem to be having a positive effect.

Not everyone stays for eight months, some come for a two week break from their full time job, some stop off for a while as they travel south east Asia. Camp consists of a real mixture of people from many countries, from teens to those in their 60s, people from all walks of life,

“TRACC is for everybody,” says Hazel Oakley, MD of the organisation. “People come for a whole range of reasons, to have a good time, do something exciting, meet interesting people, to save the reef. And to make a difference. People often seem to feel powerless, that they can’t do anything to help make the world a better place. But here in this small corner, you can do that”