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Wakatobi Guest Reports

Alex C. Walker Foundation quote:
Michael De Alessi describes a trip he completed in April 2008 to Wakatobi, an eco-tourist venture in a remote area of Indonesia, where local communities foster sustainable fishing practices and coral reef conservation, including a set of no-fishing reserves. The owners of the resort contracted with villages to prohibit destructive fishing practices, such as the use of cyanide and dynamite, on all the reefs and stop fishing completely on some of the reefs. The only reason that these contracts, and the ecosystem services that they pay for, are possible is because local communities have exclusive rights to certain reefs. The site visit explored how the communities have combined fishing rights with reserves.

Wakatobi Observations by Michael De Alessi

From March 26-April 8, 2008 Michael De Alessi visited Wakatobi and its environs in Indonesia to investigate the integration of marine reserves and marine tenure in the developing world. The trip was sponsored by a grant from the Alex C. Walker Foundation with support from the Reason Foundation and the Wakatobi Dive Resort.


Local fishing village - photo by Michael De Alessi
Wakatobi is the name of a dive resort off of the island of Tomia, and also the name of a vast marine reserve off the Southeastern tip of Sulawesi created by the government of Indonesia in 1996. The Wakatobi Marine Reserve covers almost 1.4 million hectares but is not very well enforced - locals do not respect the park and destructive fishing, as well as piles of garbage from shipping traffic, are common occurrences within the reserve. The Wakatobi Dive Resort, however, has set up its own set of protected areas in conjunction with the local villages that, according to traditional law - hukum adat - have the right to fish on the reefs. These arrangements started at approximately the same time as the creation of the marine reserve.

The owners of the resort believe that it is their duty to their investors to "preserve the main asset, namely the healthy reefs", and so they have contracted with 17 villages around the nearby island to prohibit destructive fishing methods (most notably dynamite and cyanide) on all of the reefs, to prohibit fishing completely on some of the reefs, and to limit fishing methods to less-intrusive, more traditional fishing methods (such as hook and line) on other reefs. These payments depend on the size of the villages, the reefs, and the extent of the protection. Along with other conservation-related sponsorships, annual direct contributions to local communities are greater than six figures, significant sums in a country where the average daily income is about $2 a day.

Photo taken by Michael De Alessi

The money is paid to a community council, and part of the stipulation from the resort is that the books be open to everyone. Funds have been used for such things as bringing fresh water to villages, building roads and fences, and repairing and upgrading school facilities. To enforce these provisions, in the island complex around the resort there are four reef watch stations which are manned 24 hours a day. There are also two patrol boats that spend about 8 hours a day on the water. The resort provides binoculars and radios, and gases up the boats. They also provide gas and radios to the local police, so that anyone caught doing something they shouldn't is dealt with by the police.

The results in the water are impressive. Large predators such as sharks and big groupers are hard to come by, but in general the fish life is teeming, and many medium sized predators such as grouper and barracuda indicate that the fish are getting bigger in both numbers and size in recent years. Perhaps most impressive is the stunning health and diversity of the coral reefs. Hundreds of species of corals line the reefs, and are rapidly re-colonizing areas where anchor damage occurred in the past - but clearly does not anymore.

I was not able to investigate the health of the reefs outside of the zone of influence of the resort, but I did speak to people in the villages and the resort about the enforcement of the larger marine park, and it is basically non-existent. Local community don't like it because they don't see any good coming from it, only interference, and other observers have noted that of the small number of boats requisitioned to cover over a million hectares, most are inoperable and in need of repair. In the zone around the resort, however, there is about one case of dynamite fishing every year, always by outsiders who have not heard about the local enforcement. And since the explosion can be heard for as much as 15 miles, the offenders are invariably caught.

Of course, the change in fishing has affected the fishing practices of the villages. One or two people complained that there were fewer places to fish anymore, which is certainly true. There are, however, still many places to fish near shore in between protected areas, and according to others (villagers and divers from Wakatobi), the fishing is noticeably better in those areas than it was ten years ago, presumably due to the protection of nearby reefs. During my visit, the only fish I saw for sale in the villages were small mackerel caught far offshore, but this appears to be due not to depletion or limitations on access to fishing grounds but to the seasonal nature of the live fish trade, which depends on demand from Hong Kong especially and which siphons off higher value species at certain times of the year (even away from the resort, which generally pays about double the market price for species such as Yellow Fin Tuna).

To get a better sense of the impact of the resort on the reefs and the local communities, much more in-depth research and time in the field is needed. These preliminary results, however, indicate that tapping into the ecosystem services provided by the coral reefs, this dive resort has benefited both the local communities and the environment.