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Can the crown jewel of world's coral reefs be saved?

Scientists and politicians are moving to protect the enormous biodiversity in the Coral Triangle – a critical marine nursery for tuna and other species.

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Yet while scientists and environmental groups have been working in this marine Amazon for years, only within the past few years has the region risen on the international conservation agenda, says Sian Owen, who heads the policy and external relations activities for the World Wildlife Fund's Coral Triangle program. Rising concerns about the health of the oceans in general have played a part. But concerns also have grown about the potential economic, political, and security implications for the region if the triangle no longer can serve as an economic bulwark. Beyond the terrorist bombings in Bali in 2002 and 2005, the region already has seen a surge of Islamic fundamentalism. This raises the specter of political instability if a major piece of the region's economic mosaic disappears.

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One sign that countries are taking the Coral Triangle more seriously came last month in Bali. There, top officials from Indo­nesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste – the six Coral Triangle nations – agreed to develop an action plan for sustainable management of the triangle.

The hope is to have the plan ready in May and fully approved the following year at a summit held in conjunction with the World Oceans Conference in Manado, Sulawesi. The Asian Development Bank, the Global Environment Facility, and the World Bank are devising approaches to help the six pay for their efforts. The United States has donated $4.35 million toward the goal.

Conservation helps islanders, too

In the meantime, conservation efforts in individual countries continue. And researchers are attacking a range of scientific and sociological questions related to building marine protected areas.

In late November, The Nature Conser­vancy released a study looking at whether establishing conservation programs – which include setting up alternate sources of income for inhabitants, such as seaweed farms or a cut of the fees tourists pay to enter national parks – can help reduce poverty in the region. Although the results in the four marine protected areas varied, overall, the study found that people in each were better off. More homes are sprouting satellite-TV dishes, peoples' diets are improving, and more children are finishing elementary school, says The Nature Conservancy's Ms. Djohani.

Still, experience is teaching some tough lessons, she says. In Komodo National Park, incentives to stop dynamite fishing worked spectacularly well; the use of TNT dropped by some 90 percent. But people who had followed the rules all along – and so didn't qualify for incentives – said they felt "we were rewarding the bad guys." The approach triggered some resentment, and so officials devised a package to reward good behavior.