Date released
05 December 2018

December 5 marks International Volunteer Day, a day for volunteers and organisations to celebrate their efforts, share their values and promote their work among communities.

ACIAR has long supported Australians to volunteer throughout the Indo-Pacific region, providing their knowledge and expertise in agricultural research for the betterment of our regional neighbours.

This year's theme, 'Volunteers build resilient communities', provides a great opportunity to look back on one volunteer's recent journey to Indonesia where she played an important role in helping rehabilitate coral reefs.

Australian volunteer Siobhan Heatwole (right) moved to Indonesia for a year to work with MARS Symbioscience. Photo: Darren James, Scope Global
Australian volunteer Siobhan Heatwole (right) moved to Indonesia for a year to work with MARS Symbioscience. Photo: Darren James, Scope Global

By Siobhan Heatwole

Off the coast of southern Sulawesi, Indonesia, is a group of over 100 islands sprawling across the ocean called the Spermonde archipelago. Many of these tiny islands are just made of sand, are densely populated, and are surrounded by clear blue water and coral reefs. Badi Island is one of these islands.

At first glance Badi seems just like any of the other islands in the archipelago. Dip below the surface of the water however, and you’ll see otherwise. The coral reefs around Badi are teeming with spiders. The spiders are a metre in diameter, and like your typical huntsman, they have lots of long, delicate legs. But these are no arachnids. These are metal structures that have been designed, built, and secured to the reef as part of a project run by MARS Symbioscience and ACIAR to rehabilitate the coral reefs around the island. 

Fishing is an important part of life for the people living in the Spermonde archipelago. Many people on the islands catch fishes to feed themselves and their families, and to sell to others as a source of income. Some islanders have taken to catching pretty coral reef fishes to sell to the aquarium trade as a way of making a living.

Overfishing in the region has led to a decline in fish populations, making it more difficult for people to catch enough for their survival. This has led to increasing use of destructive fishing practices as people become more desperate. Dynamite fishing is used to rapidly catch fishes for consumption, and cyanide fishing as a way of stunning ornamental fishes so they can be caught more easily. Dynamite fishing and cyanide fishing kill a large number of fishes that were not the intended targets, and destroy the coral which is extremely detrimental to the health of the entire coral reef ecosystem. 

Siobhan is helping local staff at Mars Symbioscience Mariculture facility in Sulawesi. Supplied: Darren James
Siobhan is helping local staff at Mars Symbioscience Mariculture facility in Sulawesi. Supplied: Darren James


Through collaborative projects, MARS Symbioscience and ACIAR are promoting sustainable marine resource use by communities over the long term, and are helping the communities transition to more sustainable livelihoods. This is being done through two main, interrelated programs – the ornamental fishes program and the coral reef rehabilitation program.

The ornamental fishes program is looking at the best ways for local communities with limited resources to raise ornamental fishes in captivity. This program aims to help people transition from destructive ways of catching ornamental fishes from the reef such as cyanide fishing, to a more viable, sustainable business of selling captive bred fishes to the aquarium trade. At its hatchery at Takalar, MARS Symbioscience has been investigating ways to overcome specific problems with rearing ornamental fishes on small islands. MARS Symbioscience has also been helping the people of Badi Island to establish their own hatcheries, and supports them in managing and maintaining these facilities. 

For the coral reef rehabilitation program, MARS Symbioscience has been helping to repair damaged coral reefs around the island of Badi using their spider technology. The aim is to provide a foundation on which new corals can grow, which will help restore the coral reefs to a healthier state, thus helping to boost the fish population that the local people rely on, and creating a natural barrier to waves which reduces problems with island erosion. Community workshops and outreach initiatives have been carried out to educate islanders on the importance of reef conservation and the need to take action against destructive fishing practices.

Both programs have made encouraging progress in coral reef conservation and in initiating the transition to more sustainable livelihoods at Badi Island. Coral cover on the rehabilitated reefs has increased dramatically, and more fishes seem to be present on the reefs. But why stop there? MARS Symbioscience wanted to take all the lessons learnt from its experience working at Badi, and build and improve on that in pursuit of more extensive conservation efforts. They wanted to attempt it all again at another island, and to have a more rigorous approach to measuring the impact of their work. That’s where I came in.

"With support from the AVID program and ACIAR, I moved to Sulawesi for a year to work with MARS Symbioscience on a new coral reef rehabilitation project at Bontosua Island. My role was to help assess the effectiveness of coral reef rehabilitation efforts, to provide advice on reef rehabilitation practices, and to use my experience in marine ecological research to help develop research capability within the organisation."

One of the key things we wanted to find out was whether rehabilitating the coral reefs around Bontosua Island has an impact on the local fish population over time. To examine this quantitatively, I have been managing and conducting underwater surveys to collect baseline data on the fish species present, their sizes and abundances in areas of damaged reef yet to be rehabilitated. Following the reef rehabilitation work, these surveys will be repeated regularly so that ‘before vs after’ comparisons of the fish population can be made.

All of this baseline data collection would have been a sizeable task for just one or two people. So to get the work done more efficiently and to develop the skills of my colleagues and some local university students, I created and ran training to teach them how to identify fishes and how to do underwater fish surveys so that they could help with the data collection. Running the training and coordinating the underwater surveys was a challenge. Language barriers, cultural differences and varied approaches to research and fieldwork meant that training went slowly, and there were miscommunications that led to work being carried out incorrectly and then having to be repeated.

Siobhan (right) with Rosdiana (left) testing water quality for hatchling tank. Photo: Darren James, Scope Global
Siobhan (right) with Rosdiana (left) testing water quality for hatchling tank. Photo: Darren James, Scope Global

 The effort was worth it though, because despite the snags along the way, in the end the baseline data was collected successfully and everyone, including me, gained new knowledge and skills from the experience. Rehabilitation work is expected to commence at Bontosua over the next few months. I am hopeful that with this training and practice in collecting and analysing fish survey data, my colleagues and local students will now be able to successfully monitor the fish population at Bontosua to see how it changes (and hopefully improves) over the long term.

Another big part of my job has been to help my organisation improve its data management practices and systems. Effective data management is important for all organisations if they are to be successful, and I’m very pleased that over the past few months MARS Symbioscience has made a lot of progress in this area. While most people wouldn’t consider data management to be very interesting, or the ‘sexy’ part of a marine conservation project, it is actually one of the achievements I’ve been most proud of. I’ve helped my organisation to develop data management protocols and to implement a secure file storage and sharing system that has improved the security of their data and the ease of collaboration with colleagues in distant locations.

While I feel like I have made some positive contributions to my organisation during my time in Indonesia, it certainly hasn’t been a one way street. I have learnt a lot from my colleagues and collaborators: from coral identification and ecology, ways of measuring fishing activities, and aspects of raising ornamental fishes in captivity, to how to speak Indonesian and how to pick the best papaya.

A few weeks ago huge storms ripped up some of the spiders at Badi Island, and damaged lots of coral on the rehabilitation site and on the natural reef. The weather was still rough, but my colleagues and I battled the waves trying to re-position and secure the spiders to prevent them from washing away. It was like trying to work in a washing machine. As I struggled to hold a spider in place while my colleague showed how to effectively tie it down, I couldn’t help stopping briefly to absorb the moment. It was a scenario that perfectly encapsulated my project as a whole: despite the challenges, we were all working together, helping one another, learning from one another, building our skills, and building a coral reef.

This article was originally published by ACIAR in 2017.