Interning with the Oceanic Society in Falalop, Ulithi Atoll, Micronesia August 14, 2012Posted by katecrosman in Individual Fellowship, Micronesia.
Tags: Falalop, fisheries, reefs, sustainability, Ulithi
The off-island sites we visited by speedboat that afternoon were spectacular. Crystal clear water and sun-dappled corals created good habitat for reef dwellers. Stretches of healthy substrate invited baby corals to settle and thrive. And a diversity of fish, including mature grazers like parrotfish and surgeonfish, kept the algae, coral’s number one competitor for space on the reef, under control. There were still a few causes for concern, including a notable lack of large predators, but these reefs were a pleasure to sample. In contrast to the reef we had sampled that morning.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s always wonderful to get in the water. But our surveys from the beach on the leeward side of Falalop told a different story. We had awoken at 6:30 that morning and were in the water by 7; we knew we could record enough observations before breakfast at 8. Initial visual surveys had indicated that coral species diversity was low here, with a high proportion of low-profile juvenile (or “turf”) algae, and our official samples agreed. It makes surveys easier, but this is a sign of a reef in trouble. The fish guys attributed it to a dearth of grazing species, while the coral ecologists were concerned about nutrient loading from an up-current sewage outlet and dump site.
The islanders were just worried about the erosion of their home, the flattening of their reef, and the decline of their fish catch. As a remote coral atoll, Ulithi relies on its reef for its very existence. A healthy reef provides local communities with fish and invertebrates while protecting the coastline from storm surges that, unchecked, can prove devastating. Micronesia is at the front lines of climate change, and the impacts are impossible to ignore. Locals cite rising sea levels, rapid shoreline erosion, an increasingly saline water table, and less predictable seasonal weather patterns. But they are unable to address many of the root causes directly. The good news for Falalop was that the reef damage our team saw was not solely due to climate change. The local population seemed also to be having a major effect on reef health; there might be strategies they could use to reduce the total stress on the reef.
Interviews fleshed out the story, revealing a shift away from traditional reef management in the 1970s and 80s, when new technologies like fiberglass speedboats and small-mesh nets arrived on the islands. Fisheries that had been limited by season, distance or technology suddenly became accessible. Further stress came from the opening of an atoll-wide high school on Falalop, essentially doubling the island’s population for nine months of the year. Visiting students and their sponsors sometimes lacked close local ties or familiarity with local rules. Fisheries pressure ramped up, and over time catches consisted of fewer, smaller fish. Increased waste was another consequence of a larger population and a more Westernized lifestyle. The community members with whom we spoke uniformly recognized that problems existed and were eager to address them. They just lacked the knowledge of how to do so.
Inspired by the motivation and engagement of this community, the team compiled some recommendations. By redirecting fisheries pressure off the reef, judiciously limiting the use of certain fishing techniques, and/or instituting area closures and size restrictions, fisheries-related stress might be reduced, allowing the reef to begin to recover. Among ourselves we talked about seeking funds to pursue innovative waste disposal options and redirect the sewage line, in the hopes of addressing other causes of the damage we had observed. Ultimately, of course, it is up to the community of Falalop to decide what measures to take to manage their resources. But in our final community meeting, our explanations and ideas were met with penetrating questions, nods of understanding, and, above all, expressions of hope. I too am hopeful.
It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of this process, and I am deeply grateful to the International Institute for their support, without which this experience would not have been possible.