How to build a Balinese style Coral Reef

Artificial reefs – the handmade version

Some weeks ago, I did an in-depth article about how artificial reefs are constructed, the many different styles. Big US aircraft carriers costing millions to clean and sink. Big government money. Big Japanese and Korean custom-built rigs that look like space ships. Big science about where to place them so that you don’t compete with natural reefs or attract fish from your next door neighbour. Big lobbying about allowing fishing or not.

In February 2012, I went to a poor fishing village in Bali, Les Village. A few years back, the village had fished out its reef and poisoned it to rubble with cyanide. An Indonesian NGO Telapak – actually three guys Ruwi, Cip and Arso – taught the villagers a better way. They slept on the floors of open-air huts and became part of the village family. They implemented an Adopt a Coral program where donors paid villagers to grow coral. Arso also taught them fish counting to regulate site rotation for fishing versus fish regeneration.

The village simply did this – build it and they will come. No fancy metal structures or Biorock. No government white papers. No government money either. No lobbying or consensus building. International NGOs like WWF and village chiefs from other parts of Indonesia and Papua come to visit Les Village to study their methods. So they can’t have gone far wrong.

This is how they did it.

Underwater, there are concrete structures and metal structures. Within three minutes snorkel from the shoreline, the structures are between 5-8 m depth. The concrete structures resemble pylons or domes, while the metal structures are mesh beds.


Concrete and metal structures

The villagers dragged the concrete and metal structures underwater with boats and by hand. If you don’t believe this, here are pictures. Metro, the department store, sponsored the concrete structures so underwater, the concrete pylons spell the word “METRO”.


Underwater construction of “METRO” concrete pylons

Once the pylons and metal beds are in place, you plant coral bits. For the concrete method, you start with concrete plugs, into which coral sprigs are set into glue (in the picture below, the glue is the blue-green stuff at the top). You then put the plug into its concrete socket underwater. The coral recruits are harvested from selected spots to ensure that the natural reef isn’t over-depleted. At Les Village, we have an abandoned commercial coral farm from where we can harvest the sprigs. With the metal beds, you tie on the coral recruits.


Transplanting coral recruits

Sometimes the coral sprouts fall over because of the weight as they grow. As part of the ongoing gardening and maintenance of the coral beds, the villagers pick them up, and sometimes transplant them onto neighbouring substrate. They also learn from experience how to improve the design of coral beds to withstand wave action and overweight coral.

The progress of the coral regeneration is overseen by Arso, the local marine biologist, who will ensure that there aren’t going to be harmful proliferations of non-indigenous coral. Arso wants to put in place a formal survey methodology to monitor growth rates, diseases and other impacts.

Growing the coral has a side-benefit that no one could forsee at the start, but which is now probably the most important thing in ensuring the continuity of these sustainable fishing practices. By making the fishermen grow  the coral, it vests them with a feeling of ownership over the reef. So they are much less inclined now to damage something they built with  their own hands. And having seen the time it takes for new coral to win back fish populations, they are determined to keep fish stock self-sustaining and voluntarily enforce and police their size quotas.

Instead of blitzing the reef fish with cyanide, the fishermen now place a net carefully (with minimal drag impacts) on a rock bed and chase fish into the net. They sort out fingerlings and place the fish into a decompression bucket. On off hours, they go underwater to do fishcounts to regulate which sites to fish and which to let fallow.


Netting ornamental fish sustainably

The results are there for all to see. Like Nike says, JUST DO IT!

Dive volunteers, JUST DO IT! Stay in Les Village, dive with the fishermen, transplant coral, do coral surveys, fish monitoring, have a hand netting fish the village way. Footprints and DiVo will be testing a pilot in April, to start a dive/snorkel voluntourism program from the second half of 2018. Stay tuned for more details.