Four years after a huge tsunami devastated coastal regions throughout the Indian Ocean, the coral reefs of Indonesia are making a comeback. Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have documented high densities of “baby corals” cropping up in areas where they had been wiped out.

The researchers looked at 60 sites along nearly 500 miles of coastline in Aceh, Indonesia. They attribute the recovery to natural colonization by resilient coral species, along with more sustainable fishing practices by local communities. WCS worked with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies as well as government, community, and non-government partners on the surveys.

“On the fourth anniversary of the tsunami, this is a great story of ecosystem resilience and recovery,” said Dr, Stuart Campbell, coordinator of the WCS-Indonesia Marine Program. “These findings provide new insights into coral recovery processes that can help us manage coral reefs in the face of climate change.”

While initial surveys immediately following the tsunami showed patchy damage to coral reefs, researchers later found that many of the dead reefs in the study area had actually succumbed long before. Destructive fishing practices, such as the use of dynamite and cyanide, were mainly to blame. A marine predator known as the “crown of thorns starfish” may have also caused widespread coral mortality.

The corals’ recovery in recent years is due in part to community efforts. Some communities have moved away from destructive fishing. Others have begun transplanting corals to help damaged areas recover. On a larger scale, the WCS team is working to establish community-based coral reef protected areas that empower local people to manage their own marine resources. Healthy coral reefs are economic engines for Acehnese communities, supplying commercially valuable fish as well as tourism dollars from recreational divers.

The study area is adjacent to the “Coral Triangle,” a massive region containing 75 percent of the world’s coral species. It is shared by Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste. The region is estimated to generate more than $2 billion per year in revenues and supports more than 120 million people who depend on its resources for food and employment. WCS conservationists work throughout the Coral Triangle and help protect reefs in Belize, Fiji, and Madagascar.