A top Indonesian marine scientist has said that Indonesia is planning to conduct a large-scale research study aimed at challenging international findings that the world’s largest archipelago nation is the world’s second-largest marine polluter.
“Many parties have said Indonesia’s seas have been polluted by plastic and other [materials]. We want to determine whether this is accurate,” said Dirhamsyah, who heads the Center of Oceanography Research at the government-sanctioned Indonesian Science Institute (LIPI).
Various studies indicate Indonesia is the second-biggest polluter of marine plastic debris worldwide after China. International parties like the United Nations have also pressured Indonesia to take stern action to deal with the plastic littering its seas on the back of its effect on sea ecosystems like coral reefs.
Indonesia’s status as one of the biggest marine polluters on Earth was also highlighted in the UN’s maiden Ocean Conference in New York last June.
A study published in the journal Science in January estimates that there were more than 11 billion pieces of plastic debris in coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific region. Surveying more than 150 coral reefs in Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Australia between 2011 and 2014, the study found reefs near Indonesia were littered with the most plastic, while the lowest concentration was found in Australia.
“People can say they accept or reject the results. But I personally don’t really believe [the findings],” Dirhamsyah said, referring to the January study.
Reza Cordova, a LIPI marine scientist and lead researcher of the institution’s upcoming study, said LIPI was trying to fill in the gaps in the data on marine debris in Indonesia’s seas. The Indonesian government has yet to record official data on the matter. Most of the data, he said, came from outside parties like NGOs.
LIPI will begin gathering data for the study at the end of this month. It has identified around 20 locations in the country where sampling will take place. Eight universities across Indonesia and relevant agencies will help the institution conduct the study.
Researchers will focus on at least one seashore area in each of the 20 sampling sites, which are located in 16 provinces. In each seashore, researchers will use 50-100 m2 transects in three different locations to calculate the weight of and amount of debris in each transect.
The sampling will be conducted once a month, especially during full moons when high tides are expected to bring in more debris from the sea to the seashore. Reza said the results from the 20 locations could be used to calculate a nationwide estimate.
The method had never been used before, Reza claimed, adding that the institute was open to collaborating with NGOs to verify the sampling process.
Reza said it would take at least 12 months for his team to conclude the study, which he expected to be the basis for the country’s effort to combat the problem of marine debris.
“From the study, we can give suggestions to the government on regions in Indonesia that need specific attention,” said Reza.
Globally, plastic debris is a major threat to coral reef ecosystems, apart from blast fishing by fisherfolk and coral bleaching caused by rising sea temperatures due to global warming.
Coral reefs are important for coastal communities because they help boost tourism and provide protection from waves and storms. More importantly, they also act as key spawning and nurturing grounds for fish and other sea creatures.
Plastics entering the sea carry pollutants and can be a magnet for harmful bacterial, which could lead to diseases in coral reefs entangled in the debris.
“Plastic is a silent killer for sea creatures,” Reza said.
Andi Rusandi, director of marine conservation and biodiversity at the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry, welcomed LIPI’s initiative, saying it could help the government in its sea conservation efforts.
“As the study will calculate the amount of marine debris in Indonesia, it will help the government to take a step forward,” Andi said.