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Saving the 'Coral Triangle'

A new accord brings new hope for the world's largest coral habitat.

Corals and mangrove grow at the protected Bunaken Island marine national park in Manado, photographed here May 14, 2006. Rising water temperatures, sea levels and acidity are threatening to destroy a vast region known as the Coral Triangle. (Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — With the Indonesian government leading the way, six countries signed a landmark agreement over the weekend to conserve one of the most important marine communities in the world.

The Coral Triangle contains three-quarters of all known coral species on Earth but is under attack from over-fishing, destructive fishing techniques, pollution and climate change.

Moreover, 120 million people depend on the triangle’s bounty for their livelihoods, accounting for almost $2.5 billion in income every year. The Coral Triangle is roughly half the size of the United States and is now the subject of the largest marine conservation effort in history.

“The Coral Triangle is the highest expression of marine life in the world — 500 species of coral and thousands of species of reef fish,” said Scott Atkinson, regional manager for the Coral Triangle Initiative for Conservation International, a non-government organization. “The agreement is totally unprecedented, there has been nothing like this ever in terms of marine conservation.”

The Coral Triangle itself, which spans Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and East Timor, is somewhat unassuming to the untrained eye. To look at it from the Indonesian city of Manado in North Sulawesi is nothing special. And most people who live here have never heard of it.

But it is home to some of the world’s oldest species, and for marine biologists it is the ultimate destination. Yet, like all the world’s reefs, it is disappearing at a breakneck pace. Fisherman decimate the coral using dynamite, cyanide and other poisons, and in the process they are unwittingly destroying their own sources of income.

For millions of people in Indonesia alone, the massive reef provides their only source of income, through coastal and small-scale fisheries — an income that is meager to begin with. A report released during the World Ocean Conference last week showed that if the destruction of the reef was allowed to continue, widespread poverty would be one of the tragic results.

Fortunately, Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has demonstrated an active interest in conservation since taking office several years ago. He organized the first-ever World Ocean Conference, which was held last week and which culminated in the signing of the Coral Triangle Initiative. Representative from around the world were in attendance.