Volunteers do a lot of work but also have fun!
EXCITING NEWS! Our project has been selected as one of only six case study sites for coral reef restoration by the United Nations, with our project taking up five pages out of a 45-page globally significant UNEP document! Our full Kiribati report has also been updated and selected for publication as a chapter in a book on coral reef restoration.
While the Global pandemic has changed so many things, here in Fiji and much of the South Pacific there is no community spread of the virus at all, and so we can move about as always. However, with no air travel and all commercial flights cancelled, it is still impossible to travel to Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Samoa, and so follow up trips planned for our sites there have not been possible, but we continue to work with our local partner organizations via email. In the mean time, we have focused on the Fiji sites, with especially intensive work in the Malolo sites from September.
We have gone into the sites each month since then, with teams of ten volunteers for two-week rotations, supervised by our two professional coral gardeners, Sarah, Keleni, and myself. The volunteers are mostly unemployed graduates from the marine studies program at the university, living at home with their parents due to a greatly retracted economy, now that tourism is closed down. These young people are real gems. They have an excellent background, but are bored with the present situation at home, and thus thrilled and thankful to be out in the ocean again!
Surprise from Mother Nature: A String of Tropical Cyclones Cools the Waters & Averts Widespread Coral Bleaching.
We have focused on preparing the reefs and coral nurseries for a predicted mass coral bleaching and mass death event, that was expected to hit starting this month (February), in the heart of our southern hemisphere summer. Water temperatures have reached 33C (>90F), at times in our bleaching resistant coral nurseries. Howevre, in a dynamic turn of weather trends, four cyclones hit Fiji in sequence since November, brushing past our sites (no direct hits), and cooling off the waters, so that only a minor bleaching has emerged so far.
Coral Saving Strategy has Crown of Thorns Starfish Relinquishing Killer Hold on Reefs
Our primary strategy has been to remove the venomous, coral killing, Crown of Thorns starfish (COTS), which have infested parts of our reefs, with intense focus in our planned coral outplanting and restoration sites. We can not replant corals unless and until these animals are under better control, otherwise we are just feeding the problem.
After removing hundreds of COTS from four targeted reefs, it is finally becoming harder to find them, as their abundance is much lower. After two more months of mop-up operations, we will be ready in May to commence with the out-planting of corals trimmed from the nurseries , when the waters begin to cool off again. The goal is to create sizable patches of bleaching resistant super corals on the reefs, corals that will grow into adult colonies and begin to spawn, sending their babies onto the wider reef system. This plan will test the idea that these corals share their heat adapted super-algae with nearby corals and incoming coral larvae, helping them to also become bleaching resistant. Our prediction is that the bleaching resistant reef patches will increase in size and diversity over time, and that the downcurrent coral populations will become more resistant, as the resistant corals spawn and send their larvae and algae into the wider reef system.
In these times of great heat stress, the corals should not be fragmented for planting, as that added stress can lead to their death. As an alternative strategy, entire colonies can be moved, if kept in the same upright orientation. Therefore, we successfully collected more super coral candidates from the hot pocket reefs and we moved one entire coral nursery of over 80 large mother corals from an extreme hot pocket into cooler waters.
Local-focused Partnerships with Tuvalu and Kiribati Youth for Environmental Restoration and Food Source Alternatives to Overfishing
The Tuvalu youth group that we work with has sent a wonderful report and photos showing their work removing tons of invasive seaweeds that have smothered the corals, using the sargassum seaweed as fertilizer in their sweet potato gardens. Weeding of the invasive seaweeds from around the few remaining corals in the town area is creating clean bare rock, which will receive corals trimmed from the super coral nurseries. This coral planting can occur after the third removal is completed, ensuring that the seaweeds are killed out in the restoration patches before the coral work begins.
The Kiribati nursery corals continue to thrive under the care of our local partners, who have recently sent photos of the nursery. The over-abundant parrotfish continue to suppress the coral growth in the nursery, normally a problem, but at this time the slower growth has helped ensure that the nursery is kept manageable, with the corals we trimmed last March regrowing slowly and not fighting with their neighbors. The planned creation of two new nurseries in areas with fewer parrotfish is on hold for now. The efforts we took in teaching alternate food sources in this import-dependent community: sweet potatoes, edible banana flowers and stems, wild greens, and edible seaweeds, has proven very useful, as imports have become harder to obtain, with a major slowdown in shipping and total stoppage of air freight due to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, we have not been able to follow up with the work in our partnership site on Moorea, in French Polynesia, with the "Coral Gardeners" youth-driven NGO. Even with flights inward possible, a COVID epidemic has ravaged the islands, as they have continued to allow tourists in.
Livelihood Workshops for Reef Dependent Communities, Seaweed and Giant Clam Farming, and Disaster Relief Shifts into High Gear with our Experienced Corals for Conservation Officer.
Back in Fiji, a livelihoods workshop for reef dependent communities is going on right now at our Teitei Livelihoods Centre, and our Naidiri coral restoration site is well represented. Our community officer Simione Koto is missing, as he is off to the north of Fiji, to Vanua Levu island, to assist with cyclone relief and channeling disaster aid sent to us through GlobalGiving. He is also following up on prospects for new coral restoration sites there in the two communities we are assisting. The government has almost no aid for the communities, only a week of food rations, and no material support whatsoever, as the tax base of the nation has collapsed due to the closure of the tourism industry. We are distributing cyclone strapping, nails, and roofing screws to secure rafters, beams, and roofs, to many households, to strengthen what they manage to rebuild. The elderly and single mothers with devastated houses have been identified across the communities and are initial targets for urgent relief. With the shoring up housing, both the structures and the people who live in them will be able to survive in the next storm.
The Fiji Ministry of Fisheries sent four of their officers into our Mamanuca site and they are working with us on the farming of commercially valuable and edible seaweeds in the ocean as a potential community livelihood, well as the farming of overfished and endangered giant clam species, for restoration of the important species back to the reefs.
Volunteer and Intern Opportunity in Covid-19 Free Fiji for Families, and Students!
For individuals and families who read this who would like to come serve in Fiji as self-supporting volunteers, student interns, or scientific researchers in our coral reef and community development sites, we certainly could use your help. We recently met with Fiji Immigration and it is possible to bring people in through quarantine and on the weekly repatriation flight from LAX, as long as we get you a proper volunteer permit valid for one year. Marine biology, agriculture, natural resources management, and community development graduates worldwide who are passionate about community prosperity and preserving the coral reef ecosystem may find such an internship an amazing opportunity. You might reach out to your university to see if this would qualify for an individual study course. Otherwise the experience will be enriching and will help prepare you for a career in your field. Please send us an email if you are interested.
As always, we thank you for your support and your continued and sacrificial donations, none of this amazing progress would have been possibly without small donors like you. For those planning on donating again, coming soon is a matching and bonus opportunity in March from GlobalGiving- the "Little by Little" campaign, and again in April for Earth Week bonuses.
Tuvalu Invasive Seaweed Removal Project
Kiribati Coral Nursery January, 2021
Giant Clam Babies Arrive from Fisheries!
Seaweed Farming Trials Begin in the Fiji Sites!
Crown of Thorns Starfish Removed from Nuku Reef
Volunteers get a great experience and education.