Marking a significant day in the ten-year history of the nation of The Republic Democratic of Timor-Leste, Conservation International (CI) applauds its government for the establishment of the nation’s first ‘No Take Zones’ (NTZs), where fishing restrictions and other protective measures have been put in place to enable the replenishment of fish stocks and the protection of coral reefs that support local people. The protective measures are aimed at conserving the as-yet unrealized value of Timor-Leste’s marine-based natural capital, which is essential for the food security and economic development of one of the world’s newest and least developed countries.

The announcement of these zones was made by the Timor-Leste Secretary of State for Fisheries, Rafael Periera Goncalves in an event held today in Com, a coastal community five hours from the capital of Dili. The event was attended by Judith Fergin Timor-Leste’s U.S. Ambassador, Mr. Rick Scott, USAID Mission Director, senior officials from the Timor-Leste Government and community leaders, in demonstration of the joint commitment which has brought about these important management improvements.

The seven ‘No Take Zones’ are embedded within broader multiple-use marine protected areas, covering 207 square kilometers of coastal waters of the Island nation’s only National Park. The zones encompass important coral reefs which help maximize climate resilience, serve as reef fish spawning sites, enable fisheries replenishment, and protect key dive and snorkel sites for tourism purposes.

Rafael Gonçalves, Timor Leste’s Secretary of State for Fisheries and Aquaculture said, ‘We appreciate the interest in the development of fisheries sector in Timor-Leste, this sector that plays an important role in the prevention of malnutrition, food security and livelihoods of fishermen and people of Timor-Leste.’

“Today’s launch of the No Take Zones holds great promise for the future of Timor-Leste’s marine environments and the contribution they can make to artisanal fisheries, local livelihoods and economic development,” said Conservation International’s Timor-Leste Country Director, Candice Mohan. “A well managed coastal ecosystem is extremely valuable. It can provide a sustainable supply of seafood, is critical for marine tourism, and increases the resilience of local communities to the pressures of climate change by ensuring diversified livelihood options.”

The announcement of the NTZs follows the results of a Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) marine survey of Timor-Leste’s coastal waters, carried out in August 2012 at the request of the Government and led by Conservation International (CI) with generous support from USAID’s Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP) award. The survey was conducted by a team of international and Timorese scientists and the results showed that the coral reefs in Timor-Leste were some of the healthiest and most diverse in the world.

‘We found that the coastal waters surrounding Timor Leste contains the second-highest average of reef fish species per site for any region on Earth to date,’ said Dr. Mark Erdmann, a CI marine adviser and biologist. “This biodiversity also extends to the coral reefs, with three potentially new coral species identified.”

The survey results have increased Timor-Leste’s reef fish species records to a highly significant 814 species (six of which are likely new species), with visual counts averaging nearly 212 species per site. The coral reefs that were surveyed were also recorded as being exposed to cooler water temperatures than reefs in neighboring countries. This, combined with strong currents, is likely to confer strong climate change resiliency to Timor-Leste’s coral reefs, which help provide buffer against storms and serve as nurseries for locally-important fish benefiting human well-being in Timor Leste. With appropriate management, these resources hold significant potential for the food security and economic development of one of the world’s newest and least developed countries.

Secretary Goncalves, who invited CI scientists to return and complete the marine survey in areas not yet explored, said, ‘The Marine RAP was important as the information allows us to better understand our marine resources. ”

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In response to the Timor-Leste Government’s plans for fostering tourism growth as a contribution to economic development, Erdmann also noted the great potential for marine tourism to work in synergy with improved protection and management efforts. ‘It is important to set clear regulations from the outset of such activities to ensure that local communities derive significant benefits from tourism in a way that encourages even better stewardship of their reefs’.

The ‘No Take Zones’ will be enforced through a co-management approach between local, district and national fisheries authorities, which are the result of the USAID-funded CTSP. The project has been supporting the Timor-Leste government and the fishing communities of Com, Tutuala and Lore to develop community-based marine management practices, centered on improved biological and ecological knowledge.

Image courtesy Conservation International

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