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URI professor awarded $3 million USAID grant to study coral reef fisheries in Indonesia, URI Today, April 17, 2017

posted Jun 9, 2017, 1:17 AM by Brook Ross
Food security is a serious concern in Indonesia, where delicate coral reef ecosystems provide fish and livelihood for over three million fishermen. But their catch is declining with many fisheries being overexploited and management of the fishery needs improvement.

That’s where the University of Rhode Island’s Austin Humphries comes in. The assistant professor of fisheries is leading a team that has been awarded a $3 million grant by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The research will identify fishery management strategies which maintain and protect the ecosystem while also ensuring that fish are available for consumption. While conducting this research, a primary objective is to train Indonesian scientists, and in particular women, to conduct research on coral reef fisheries.

“A large proportion of Indonesian communities are dependent on coral reefs for food,” said Humphries. “As these fisheries are feeling the heat from global stressors like coral bleaching, declines in fish catch are a major issue for subsistence and food security. Creating holistic evaluations of new and existing fishery management schemes is becoming more and more important to ensure sustainability over the long-term.”

According to Humphries, Indonesia has the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world, and half of the world’s six million small-scale coral reef fishermen are in Indonesia. The country’s government is trying to implement an ecosystem-based fishery management system that will examine the impact of fisheries in the context of a healthy ecosystem while also considering the social context in which the fisheries operate.

“Indonesia is one of the first countries in the world that’s taking steps towards formalizing a holistic management plan for coral reef fisheries that considers multiple components of the ecosystem,” he said. “This project will provide the government with vital information for that initiative.”

The four-year grant will enable Humphries to travel to Indonesia three times per year for month-long stays to train and join local scientists in counting corals and fish, taking water samples, and conducting genetic analyses to gain a better understanding of the entire coral reef food web. They’ll also monitor the number and species of fish captured by the local fishermen.

The work will be conducted in two regions of the country, one that is heavily fished and where many different types of fishing gears are used under relatively lax management regimes, and the other a remote area where fishing pressure is light and management follows traditional doctrines.

“In the end, we’ll have ecosystem and fishery models that we hope to be able to use and forecast what would happen if different management strategies were implemented. How would the ecosystem respond and how would the fishermen and their catch respond?” Humphries explained.

“If management determines that certain gear types should be banned because they are considered unsustainable, we’ll be able to model the impact of that on the coral, on the fish, on the entire food web, and on the people and their catch,” he added. “With that tool, managers can test some alternative scenarios and evaluate tradeoffs that consider the needs of both people and nature. That’s the holy grail that we want to get to.”

In addition to Humphries, the project will also include URI Associate Professor Chris Lane, who will lead the genetics part of the project, graduate student Paul Carvalho, and a postdoctoral researcher. Collaborators from Mississippi State University will lead a similarly themed project on land with livestock that is designed to optimize reproduction and thus improve land-based food security.

Training of the local Indonesian scientists, both graduate students and faculty, will be a primary and key element of the project. The funding aims to build capacity so Indonesian scientists will be better able to conduct scientifically rigorous research and continue the work long after the project funding.

“At the end of the day, they’re going to be the ones doing this work in the future,” Humphries said. “The sustainability of the coral reef resource is in their hands. We’re just trying to help get the ball rolling in that direction with data-driven science.”

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