Media coverage on my fieldwork: impacts of land reclamation on mangroves and coastal Balinese ecosystems

Link to article:

“Kelly Heber Dunning, a doctoral candidate in natural resource management at MIT, has worked with fishing communities in the area and shares some of the same concerns. She told VICE News that intertidal habitats such as Benoa have huge value, as they “buffer human settlements from erosion, provide habitats for juvenile fish that grow up to be commercially valuable species, purify water with roots that collect and trap detritus, cycle nutrients (from sewage), and so on.”

Going further, Dunning noted: “When you take away ecosystem services from fishermen in order to build a luxury destination for visitors, there must be long-term compensation for the lost value of the services this will cause.” Across Indonesia, top-down development frequently outpaces the ability of communities to have a real say in their future. But it’s clear that this generation of Indonesians can and will stand up to those in power. From the Sumatran countryside to the urban metropolis of Jakarta, disputes over land rights have brought legal action and clashes with police. “


Media coverage on my research: MIT Environmental Policy and Planning reviews my work on “Implementing the International Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in South East Asia”

“International treaties can exert pressure on national governments to pay attention to certain policy goals, how they choose to implement these goals is up to them. Kelly Heber Dunning (PhD ’16) examines the challenges facing countries that have signed on to the International Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Using a comparative case study of relatively similar (endangered) coral reefs in Indonesia and Malaysia, Kelly looks at the results in the two countries. She discovers (using a variety of underwater monitoring strategies and detailed surveys and interviews) that Indonesia’s co-managed system (government and villages) is more effective than Malaysia’s uses a top-down network of federally managed Marine Parks. Her findings go beyond what the research community has been able to document thus far regarding the advantages and disadvantages of alternative common pool resource management strategies.

If you’d like to learn more about Indonesia’s model and the likelihood it can be replicated, you can download Kelly’s dissertation here.”

Media coverage: Can Southeast Asia stop dumping plastic waste in our oceans?

An article featuring my views on marine waste in Southeast Asia:

“From what I have gathered through my own research, [the region’s plastic waste problem] started in the 1960s and 1970s when plastics began to replace banana leaves as the primary food containers,” said Kelly Heber Dunning, a PhD Student focused on natural resource management in the MIT Science Impact Collaborative.

Dunning, who is writing her dissertation on collaborative coral reef management in Indonesian and Malaysian villages, sees Bali as the “worst-case scenario” in the region. “The tide goes out in small coral reef villages on the north part of the island, and the trash line at low tide is like a rainbow on the black volcanic sand,” she said. “I have never seen anything like it.”

She recalled a cab journey in Java where her driver threw his food container out of the window without a second thought, explaining that this was the “Balinese way”. However, she is quick to add that placing the blame solely on locals is wrong.

“That is a misconception that I hear a lot in the field,” she says. “People blame the Balinese or the locals on the islands popular among divers. Local people cannot produce trash at the rate that the waves and waves of tourists from wealthy countries in the West are capable of. People from the West need to think about their own impacts and try to reduce [their waste] when on vacation.”

The media’s responsibility to Florida grouper

How does media glorification of anglers with large goliath grouper catches mislead the public on Florida environmental law?

The Goliath Grouper (Epinephelus itajara) is a truly iconic Florida species found in the tropical and subtropical Atlantic. It is well known for its size, with Florida reefs hosting some famous groupers in the 4-800 pound range. Anyone who has been to Molasses Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has had an encounter with one of the resident goliaths.

Harvest and possession of goliath has been prohibited by Florida Fish and Wildlife since 1990. This is good, because we are not yet very skilled at counting goliaths. Officials performed an official tally, known as a stock assessment in 2010, but this was later discredited. The major takeaway here is that we just do not know how many there are. Another reason the protection is a good deal for the goliaths is because they are aggregate spawners, meaning they congregate in well known locations such as Jupiter’s M/V Castor Wreck dive. Thus, if they weren’t protected, people would know exactly where and when to go and spear several dozen at a time.

Given the smart moves Florida has made to protect this particularly special native species, I find it very strange the way the media glorifies fishermen who haul in these fish. Yesterday, a man caught a 400 lb goliath using a lure he made with a wrench. This went viral, and was widely covered in the Florida news media. But, coverage on the subject misses the chance to play a role in conservation. By not spreading information on best practices to reduce fish mortality during catch and release, Florida news media is missing a big opportunity to work to further grouper conservation.

We do not have a lot of data on whether certain species of fish can survive catch and release. Florida Fish and Wildlife do have some detailed guidelines on how to mitigate injury and death to catch and release fish, but who spends a lot of time on state level resource bureaucracies’ websites (besides this author)? This is where the news media can come in.


Moe on Molasses Reef, Florida Keys

With groupers in particular, the issue is the risk of a distended air bladder when landing a grouper from their preferred habitat (10+ meters). Additionally, certain fish (including goliaths) are prohibited from being hauled up out of the water for a photo, since this could damage their delicate frame which cannot hold their mass outside of the underwater environment.

Every online piece or live report on a grouper catch and release should not just remind viewers and readers that goliath grouper landings are regulated, but also give the public practical information on how to catch and release these fish while ensuring they survive. Additionally, images like these should be used as informative teaching tools for what not to do (because doing so is illegal). This photo, and the terrestrial landing of the goliath that it depicts is prohibited by our own state laws, and yet it is still reported on as if it were an achievement for these Florida anglers. They are in violation of the letter of the law, and are ignoring best practices for reducing catch and release mortality.

Angling and angling culture is a huge part of what it means to be a Floridian, but we all need to take a bit more responsibility to ensure the longterm sustainability of our way of life. The media can play a major role when it stumbles on these viral goliath stories.

On the Recent Everglades TV Ads in South Florida and what’s next in the Everglades Restoration

South Floridians may have noticed advertisements on TV recently sponsored by NGOs who work on Everglades Restoration. These ads are urging state lawmakers to use Amendment 1 money to buy land that will serve as a reservoir to bring water from lake Okeechobee down to the forever-water-starved Everglades. You will remember that this most recent election over 70% of Floridians voted for Amendment 1 to buy land for conservation purposes. In this blog, I have already made the case that this is not only a smart move economically-speaking but is also a common way for American states to fund conservation. In Florida, a state that runs on 1) the tourism sector and 2) the real-estate sector, selling houses overlooking the waterfront, any investment in functioning coastal ecosystems is an investment in our two main economic engines.

Florida Crystals, aka “Big Sugar” has come out against these advertisements and I wanted to make clear their reasons for doing so. Florida Crystals has its eyes on the prize, Governor Rick Scott’s $880 million long-term Everglades restoration plan (HB 7065) from 2013, which gifted $32 million a year towards cleaning up water run-off from South Florida farms. Let’s be clear about one thing: Florida has a polluter pays amendment, voted into existence by tax payers who were tired of paying to clean up the sugar industry’s runoff that fills our waters with unnatural amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous, causing algal blooms, manatee and fish die offs, coral diseases (corals require low amounts of nutrients to thrive), sick wetlands, declining wading bird populations and so on and so forth. This $32 million dollars is a taxpayer-financed gift to Big Sugar, in effect flouting our constitution (polluter pays) and financing cleanup of their mess. I for one do not want to finance a multi-million dollar industry that is Big Sugar that lessens the environmental quality of Florida, and in doing so lessens the state’s main economic drivers.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program itself, enacted in 1990 and slated to cost between 9 and 12 billion dollars over several decades, is one massive effort to 1) restore freshwater flows from Lake Okeechobee to Everglades National Park and 2) reduce the excess nitrogen and phosphorous runoff coming from the farms. Big Sugar is warning us that by buying this land, where water will run from Lake Okeechobee to the Glades, instead of gifting them $32 million will “derail” Everglades restoration. I would argue that enforcing polluter pays and making Big Sugar pay its own cleanup costs in addition to re-opening freshwater flow-ways to the Everglades is the only logical step forward. Please ignore their flailing.

image taken near Big Cypress

image taken near Big Cypress

January 2015 teaching in the field: MIT Malaysia field practicum on sustainable development

This is the second year that I’ve been invited on as a teaching assistant for the MIT Sustainable Development Practicum course. We bring 15 masters students who then group themselves according to interest and study some of the many topics within sustainable development. The great thing for me is that in the final week, I was able to take a small group of students and focus on an issue having to do with my own research on coastal resource management. Thanks to Professor Dan Friess’ help from the National University of Singapore, we were able to plan several days of learning excursions for our students organized around the theme of reclamation on urbanized coasts. All of the participants this year, plus short bios can be viewed here.

We wanted to explore coastal reclamation in the Singapore and Malaysian contexts, since so much of it is occurring on the waterway that separates Malaysia from Singapore (by a thin tidal strait). With reclamation also comes issues of stressors to the coastal environment including those to nearshore fisheries, mangroves, sea grass beds, mudflats and migratory bird habitat; relocations of coastal villages; and trans boundary issues with impacts on one coast spreading to the other side of the geo-political border. There were a shocking amount of geopolitical considerations, including border disputes between Singapore and Malaysia, as well as social issues such as the relocation of entire villages.

We began in Singapore examining a previous site of reclamation that ended up being disputed by Malaysia under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention Law of the Seas) arbitration in the 1990s. This set the scene for our second visit, this time on the Malaysia side, where they are doing massive reclamation projects from the causeway linking Singapore to the Danga Bay. The irony is palpable since Malaysa took Singapore to an UNCLOS arbitration tribunal to prevent this same expansion. The final day’s visits took us to the mangrove villages adjacent to the world’s fastest growing port, Tanjung Pelepas also known as the PTP complex in Johor, Malaysia. There one can find another planned reclamation project which gained a lot of attention in recent months since it bypassed the environmental impact assessment project and dumped millions of cubic meters of sand on peninsular Malaysia’s largest sea grass bed, home to its dugongs and bordering not only a Ramsar site but also a national park. We visited a relocated fishermen’s village that the PTP and government officials forcefully relocated for reclamation purposes.

In sum, reclamation and shoreline planning are not isolated technical, engineering, or biological issues they are also political and social issues as well, as is evidenced in the relocations of entire villages and the contested nature of the reclamations bypassing the environmental impact assessments thanks to well-connected elite firms pushing the projects through. Below are the sites we visited as part of this module along with the learning objectives and images:

Day 1. Pulau Ubin, Cek Jawa, and Sungai Buloh: Reclamation on the Singaporean coast

Learning objectives:

  • trans-boundary reclamation issues between Singapore and Malaysia, the focus here is on governance, looking at UNCLOS as a forum for conflict resolution in the past
  • How reclamation impacts water quality, coastal environmental health, and may be responsible for system shifts (eutrophic water, anoxic water)

Major points of interest:

  • From the 1970s to the 1980s, Singapore tried and expand its military base on Tekong Island and on Tekong Kecil. It reclaimed the space between these 2 islands and turned them into one, and enlarged them. In the 1990s, they wanted to expand Tekong Kecil to the coasts of Palau Ubin, but Malaysia took the case to UNLOS and disputed it.
    • Johor politicians alike complained that Singapore did not consult them in this planned reclamation, that it affected local Malaysian livelihoods in the fishing villages in Johor, and that it restricted their access to the port of Pasir Gudang.
  • Now with all of the contemporary reclamation on Danga Bay in Johor, Malaysia, this early case of the international dispute resolution by UNCLOS stopping Singapore from doing the same thing. is made even more interesting



Caption: Palau Tekok on the upper right, seagrass just visible as the tide goes out 


Caption: Mudflats and coastal wetland ecosystems of of Cek Jawa


Caption: Dan Friess of the NUS Mangrove Lab briefs the MIT, UTM, and NUS students 

Day 2: Johor Shoreline, half a day walk from the causeway to Danga Bay, and then to Tanjung Piai National Park, looking across to the PTP Port Complex (future site of Forest City and further PTP reclamation on top of peninsular Malaysia’s largest sea grass bed) 

Learning Objectives

  • trans-boundary reclamation issues between Singapore and Malaysia, the focus here is on governance, looking at UNCLOS as a forum for conflict resolution in the past
  • How reclamation impacts water quality, coastal environmental health, and may be responsible for system shifts (eutrophic water, anoxic water)

Major points of interest

  • During this trip is became clear that the same Developer (County Gardens of China) that is responsible for the massive Forest City Proposal (in conjunction with the Sultan of Johor’s own company) is also the same one doing all of the reclamation along JB’s coast. Given its ties to the Sultan this project will be pushed through.



Caption: an army of dredges to fill in land from the causeway all the way over to Danga bay for the Country Gardens massive development project


Caption: A reclaimed bit of land, you need to sneak around and look through holes in big fences to see this stuff.


Caption: Passed through police barrier to see this view.


Caption: Chinese migrant laborer dorms


Caption: The scale of just ONE of the many developments as part of the bigger project. See model below for breathtaking and massive scale


Caption: Water front view: this is only 1/3 of the full mock up, and only on the waterfront side. There is a whole back side. This is the area where we drive by on the costal highway with all the fences and construction

Day 3: Kampung Pok and Kampung Pendas near the future Forest City reclamation project

Learning objectives:

  • The impact of the reclamations on the communities who depend on the small scale fisheries and forestry (mangroves)

Major points of interest:

  • The Forest City Reclamation is controversial and it is in the news. What many people do not know is that the Port of PTP is also undergoing reclamation that is doing a lot of the same environmental damage that Forest City is doing.
    • There were several sites where they cleared land and rented it to Forest City (for migrant dorms and so on) and are letting Forest City get the criticism when as soon as Forest City finishes, PTP will undergo expansion.
  • Resettlement and evidence of entire villages being moved in preparation for Forest City is everywhere.
  • There are organizers working in the main village to advocate for the people who live there and depend on the ecosystem services provided by sea grass. We made contact with one and we learned her story of teaching the children citizen science.



Caption: Kampung Pendas, where all the fishermen were evicted to build show homes and resorts. On the far right in the background is the Singapore live firing zone for its military that shakes the walls of village homes and the soon to be luxury settlements


Caption: This is the relocation site. This is a village of fishermen across the water from the Jedi Pendas, this village is called Kampung Pendas Baru (Baru means new in Malay) because the original Kampung Pendas was evicted to build a resort. These homes have no water access for the boats, and now the builders have informed the relocated people who live here that they will be kicked out in 2 years.


Caption: Kampung Pok where there is real resistance to the Forest City Project that is better organized and more coherent than any neighboring village. Neighboring villages have many factions while the head man here has assured a unified front.


Caption: this sis high tide so the sand cannot be seen. This is the future Forest City site. PTP port complex is on the right, a tanker is in the center. The interesting thing here is that they’re going for this luxurious high rise on islands thing, when really all they have is a view of tankers, oil and gas, a power plant, and silt plumes.


Caption: The forest site where the children in Kampung Ladang were trained to do citizen science.