July 28, 2009

OceansWatch Signs Off on 1st MPA


Some of the OceansWatch team


Local lifestyle under threat


Rennell Island, Solomon Islands

By OceansWatch

The 2009 work season has successfully begun for two OceansWatch teams – one based in Vanuatu, led by Natalie Riddler on several host yachts; and another in the Solomon Islands and PNG, led by Chris Bone on Magic Roundabout. Natalie’s team is starting to collect data for the Vanuatu Ministry of Fisheries and Reef Check, on their first host boat, Waka Taitea. Chris and the crew have also had a very productive week on Rennell Island at the very south of the Solomon Islands archipelago. Rennell is unusual among other islands in Melanesia, as it is populated by people of Polynesian origin.

OceansWatch had been invited to Rennell by Willie Sau Kaitu’u, a member of the Tehakatu’u tribe in February 2009. When Chris and the team arrived they found a tribe with great leadership aware that its marine resources were reaching dangerously low levels. Since the 1960s various overseas fishing enterprises had persuaded the tribe to sell the last of their limited resources. Crayfish were completely fished out 20 years ago and are only just starting to re-appear. Sea cucumbers have almost completely vanished and the shark and clam populations at nearby reefs have been decimated. Adding to the burden of overfishing have been regular cyclones, which cause repeated damage to corals. Surveys found mainly massive and encrusting corals, those less susceptible to wave damage.  All other coral forms were found but very few foliose and branching corals. In the damaged areas, new growth was encountered but all colonies were estimated to be less than 10 years old. The last major cyclone here was in 1993, a cyclone that destroyed every house in the area. As the bay where the Tehakatu’u tribe lives is very open even distant cyclones adversely affect the reef.

The local community does not have the resources to fish offshore and the soils are very poor, so reef fishing provides the major source of protein. The day after OceansWatch arrived, the community called a meeting in which OceansWatch scientist Alison Schmidt gave a talk on coral reef ecology and options were outlined for protecting fish stocks, such as constraints on fishing gear, seasonal bans, size limits and an MPA. Immediately after the talk the community formed the Tahakatu’u Conservation Committee, which asked OceansWatch to locate a suitable MPA site.

Alternate 100m sections were surveyed throughout the tribe’s reef and it was soon apparent that one site stood out as it had more coral life forms and coral cover than other sites. The area was mapped and Reef Check surveys were conducted both within and outside the MPA.

The Conservation committee met again to discuss the findings and agreed on the MPA site. While the community agrees that the MPA is an essential life insurance policy for the tribe’s marine resources, they are naturally concerned at the immediate loss of fishing area. OceansWatch will be working with the tribe to help them best utilize alternative sustainable resources for the next 4 years. OceansWatch will also train community members to monitor their own fisheries and MPA.

Frequent updates of the trip are available on the Magic Roundabout sailblog http://www.sailblogs.com/member/oceanswatch/.