The Indonesian government can't restore one of the country's best coral reefs until it strikes a compensation deal with the insurer of the cruise line that wrecked it, the deputy coordinating maritime minister said this week.
Raja Ampat, an island chain off the coast of New Guinea, is home to perhaps the world's richest marine biodiversity. On March 4th, the 90-meter-long Caledonian Sky, owned by tour operator Noble Caledonia, ran aground at low tide on a shoal at the Crossover Reef dive site there. Nearly 205,000 square feet of pristine reef were damaged in the accident.
"We already have a design and budget to help revive the area, but we still can't go in there," Arif Havas Oegroseno, the deputy coordinating minister, said in an email.
If the government set about restoring the reef, and then negotiations with the insurer broke down and the case went to court, the state could be found guilty of tampering with evidence, he explained.
Noble Caledonia is insured by the London P&I Club. The London-headquartered small ship cruise liner has apologized for the incident and pledged to cooperate with Indonesia "towards a fair and realistic settlement."
Marine experts suggest that the sooner the damaged reef can be restored, the better its chances for survival.
The placement of artificial corals is imperative to the reef's recovery, according to Nur Hidayat, marine protected areas monitoring coordinator at Conservation International Indonesia, a non-governmental organization. More broadly, though, he argued for minimal human intervention.
"Raja Ampat is one of Indonesia's ecologically pristine areas that, if left as is without any anthropogenic disruption, has the ability to self-recover, although it will never revive to its pre-accident state," he said.
In the wake of the accident, the Raja Ampat district administration has prohibited any human activity in or near the area, according to Hidayat.
At least 13,000 square meters of reef were damaged by the 4,290-tonne vessel, according to an official investigation whose results were signed off on by both the state and the tour operator.
The boat also inflicted "medium damage" on 5,612 square meters of reef from sand whipping and coral debris caused by the ship's movement. A tugboat was called in to break it free from the shallow area, which ultimately harmed the reef even more.
By point of comparison, the broader Raja Ampat Islands stretch across 15,400 square miles of land and sea off the northwest tip of West Papua province.
In addition, the incident destroyed the ecosystem's structural habitat and caused the reduction or loss of diversity of eight coral genera, including acropora, porites, montipora, and stylophora.
"Crossover Reef ... used to be a perfect example of Raja Ampat's magnificent marine life," said Simon Davis, a yachtsman who has explored the islands for three years. “"hick healthy coral covered the entire reef and schools of fish swarmed all over."
The reef was home to some coral species found only in Raja Ampat, he said. Manta rays and sharks could be spotted cruising its edge. "Having seen the reef both before and after the crash, the extent of destruction was viscerally shocking. It is tragic that such a stunning place could be reduced to rubble so quickly, and it is terribly sad that it will take decades for it to grow again."
Ricardo Tapilatu, head of the Research Center for Pacific Marine Resources at the University of Papua, who led a team to assess the damage, said in an interview immediately after the disaster that the standard compensation rate was $200-$400 per square meter.
But due to Raja Ampat's special biodiversity and its status as one of the world's most popular dive sites, as well as the fact that the damage occurred in a national park, he added, the rate should be higher than normal.
The Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs is seeking approval to upgrade the status of Raja Ampat—along with four other locations in Maluku, North Maluku, and East Nusa Tenggara provinces—to a particularly sensitive sea area, a designation of the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency.
The status would give these destinations additional protective actions to control maritime activities in the area, such as routing management and installation of vessel traffic services at nearby ports.
The designation is intended for a sea area that has significance for its "recognized ecological or socioeconomic or scientific reasons and which may be vulnerable to damage by international maritime activities," according to the IMO.
This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Mongabay.com. Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.