Within the first few days of arriving in Timor-Leste, the Catlin Shallow Reef Survey Team travelled to the eastern most part of the country to survey Nino Konis Santana National Park. It's the nation’s first N.P. established only 5 years after formal independence was declared in August 2007. Named after a national hero in the recent independence movement, the park extends 3 nautical miles into the sea encompassing 55,600 ha of sea and 68,000 ha of land. Nino Konis Santana National Park is designed to protect not only the terrestrial and marine resources, but also the cultural and historical heritage of the Timorese people. Culturally, the Timorese are very connected to their natural environment; for example, the agricultural calendar begins with the harvest of Meci, a marine annelid worm, a time for celebration in local communities.
As an IUCN Protected Landscape and Seascape, the interactions between people and nature are recognized and valued. The park will continue to be permanently inhabited by the existing populations present. Priorities for the park include the well-being of these villages with aims to maintain sustainable agricultural and fisheries practices, develop eco-tourism, protect endemic species, and identify managed areas.
Our field team spent 2 days surveying marine areas within the park including Jaco Island, the uninhabited, eastern most part of the country. The Sundancer NT (our research vessel) anchored in the channel between Jaco and Timor Islands as the sun set to darkness and the next morning, Veronica and I jumped in near the beach to calibrate the Go-Pro stereo camera system via snorkel. We were greeted by a breathtaking reef with tabulate Acropora corals large enough to seat 6 people, anemone fish in anemones, and school upon school of glittering, colorful reef fishes.
However, the National Park is not without threats and its management plan includes mitigation of destructive practices such as slash and burn agriculture and illegal fishing. Based on what we've seen in our short time here, the sites in the park appear to demonstrate less negative human impacts than areas outside of the park - these indicators include patches of flattened coral rubble, trash, and less incidence of coral disease and bleaching. With development in Timor-Leste’s future, the Catlin Seaview Survey’s phototransects are a valuable resource to document a baseline of these relatively unexplored reefs. As a nascent country, the management of the natural resources of Timor-Leste appear to be off to a good start and we're hopeful that communities centered on sustainable resource management will grow and prosper into the future.