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Interning with the Oceanic Society in Falalop, Ulithi Atoll, Micronesia August 14, 2012

Posted by katecrosman in Individual Fellowship, Micronesia.
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Kate Crosman

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.

Kate at Galeb Cut (Photo: Michelle Paddack)

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.

Falalop Community Meeting. (Photo: Michelle Paddack)

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.

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Climate Change Planning in Micronesia June 25, 2012

Posted by katecrosman in Individual Fellowship, Micronesia.
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Kate Crosman

I applied for the International Institute Individual Fellowship because I had the opportunity to intern on Falalop Island, Ulithi Atoll, Micronesia, with the Oceanic Society. Oceanic, a conservation NGO out of San Francisco, was invited to Falalop by the local chiefs to help design a locally implementable climate and fisheries adaptation plan. The community on Ulithi relies on taro patches and traditional coral reef fisheries for their food, but climate change is causing taro patches to become saline and reef fish populations to decline. They recognized that in order to maintain their traditional lifestyle, they needed to change the way they use their resources – and that they didn’t have the expertise to do it without help.

Oceanic is creating a plan, and providing needed training, to allow the islanders to monitor their own fisheries and adapt to climate change and its associated challenges. My role is to work with community members to better understand the fishery – what is caught, and when – and to work with Oceanic scientists to monitor the reef and local fish populations. Once the plan is in place, we will build local capacity for its implementation and adaptation. Through this work I hope to help this community fill their self-identified need and gain the skills necessary to manage their fisheries sustainably. I hope also to gain experience and hone my collaboration and outreach skills, so that I can continue to help communities, especially in the developing world, identify their conservation priorities and gain the tools they need to manage their own resources sustainably.

Kate participating in a sea otter field study with the Monterey Bay Aquarium

The funds provided by the International Institute Individual Fellowship cover my travel expenses and much of my living costs. Without the support of the International Institute, I would not be able to take advantage of this amazing opportunity to help those in need and grow both personally and professionally.