By Cherelle Jackson
APIA – Local environmentalists have expressed their dismay and disappointment at Governments disregard for marine life in the construction and planning of the Satitoa, Aleipata Slipway.
“I think the Government is verging on the point of being negligent,” Sue Miller Taei said.
“I am overwhelmingly disappointed that the Government has not taken into account the Marine Protected Area (MPA) and the impacts of the Slipway on marine life and the lives who depend on that area.”
Taei who is the current Marine Director of Conservation International in the Pacific, was a Project Manager during the establishment of the Aleipata and Safata MPAs.
Taei at the time was based in the Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment (MNRE) in a project funded by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“I am saddened and heartbroken for the people of Aleipata, who had made tremendous progress in recovering fish stocks in the area, and whose hard work in the management of the MPA, have been disregarded by the Government,” Taei said.
The new Satitoa, Aleipata slipway which will be opened this Friday is built on a site of valuable and significant marine life, and one that was officiated by the Samoan Government as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in 2001.
According to Taei the location of the slipway dishonours one of the founding principles of an MPA, which is meant to protect the species and marine life within it, and prevent it from being affected by harmful human activities.
In 1999 the Government of Samoa and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) highlighted the value of the Aleipata area in a joint project.
In 2001 the district of Aleipata declared its inshore reef as part of the Aleipata Marine Protected Area through a project funded under the Global Environment Facility.
“Since then, they have made significant progress in preserving and recovering the marine life in the area,” Taei said.
The GEF project undertook a comprehensive marine biodiversity survey of the whole Aleipata district from Tiavea village to Lalomanu village.
The results of the survey and consultations with the villages lead to the establishment of No-Take-Zones for each village.
The GEF project was completed in 2003 and the Government of Samoa in partnership with the Aleipata District continued to implement the MPA Management Plan activities which include the monitoring of the No-Take-Zones as well as regulations for the sustainable harvesting and enjoyment of the marine resources in the area.
Surprisingly the Government through the Samoa Ports Authority started construction of the Slipway in 2008.
An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the project was conducted by the Pacific Environment Consultants Limited (PECL) in March 2008 found varying degrees of threats to natural habitat and marine life within the current location of the Slipway.
On the implications, the EIA concluded that the proposed development will have both short term and long term implications on the marine environment of Aleipata.
The EIA pointed out that any “slip” in the proper operation of the Slipway and wharf will have detrimental impacts on the marine resources which the district is highly dependent upon for livelihood.
James Atherton, a local environmentalist said that the construction of the Slipway would have already caused significant damage to the area.
“The reality is, there will be slips as they call it, and there will be leakages, and the cleaning of boats will adversely impact on the marine life in the area,” Atherton said.
According to the EIA, the Aleipata inshore marine environment has been described as amongst the best in Samoa, for its rich marine biodiversity such the abundance of fish and shellfish life, and the well protected coral reef system.
Some of the activities implemented under the management plan for the area include the establishment of No-Take Zones for each of the 11 village of Aleipata, a rehabilitation programme for the Aleipata islands, regulations for the sustainable harvesting of marine resources, and a reef monitoring programme.
Taei said that throughout the years the people of Aleipata have gained back valued marine resources in the preservation of the area.
The EIA stated: “The Aleipata inshore reef is home to a diverse and very vibrant marine biodiversity, ranging from a wide range of fish species, sea grass communities, invertebrates, and corals. It is also home to some of globally and nationally threatened species such as nesting hawksbill turtles, migrating whales, and giant clams. All this biodiversity is very vulnerable to changes that would impact their natural state.”
But the environmental concern expressed by Taei and Atherton extend to the livelihoods of the people of Aleipata.
A survey conducted for the area found that the inshore reef of Aleipata is critical for livelihood of the people of the district; Inshore Resources of Upolu noted that around 78% of the district depends upon the sea for its livelihood, either for commercial use or domestic consumption.
“The new development will pose a great risk to the marine life, which in turn will affect the people whose lives depend on sustainable use of that area,” Atherton said.
According to Atherton, the construction that has already taken place has no doubt disturbed the marine life, and may have already caused irreparable damage to the marine area.
According to the 2007 census, the Aleipata district hosts a population of 4928.
The 1989/1990 Coastal Inventory of Fisheries Database titled, The Inshore Resource of Upolu, Western Samoa, by Leon Zann noted that of 434 households of Aleipata, 339 households were fishing households.
It showed that around 78% of the district depends upon the sea for its livelihood, either for commercial use or domestic consumption.
This high dependency on the sea for livelihood is a critical issue regarding the potential impact of pollution from the Slipway.
“Cleaning of vessels at the Slipway will be extremely toxic for the marine life, and on the coastline,” Taei said.
The Government has argued in the past that the MPA will bring economic benefits to the people of Aleipata, through better access from American Samoa.
Atherton however feels otherwise.
“I do not think that the peole of Aleipata are fully aware of the long term impacts of this development on their livelihoods,” Atherton said.
Taei agreed saying: “I am not convinced by the economic benefits of this project, the physical construction has ruined the hard work of the people of Aleipata.”
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) noted in a baseline survey in 2002 that the Aleipata slipway is home to a slew of rare, endangered and threatened marine species such as the giant clams Hippopus hippopus, Tridacna squamosa and Tridacna maxima, and coconut crabs Birgus latro. According to the same report by IUCN, the Green (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles are common along the Aleipata inshore reef which uses it as its main foraging area –due to the abundance of seagrass- especially during the mating season where the nearby offshore islands are the main nesting beaches.
IUCN found that the globally threatened Sperm (Physter macrocepalus) and humpbacks (Megaptera novaeanglaiae) whales are frequently seen offshore of Aleipata during their migration to the tropics around July to September each year.
Already villagers from Aleipata have reported cloudy waters, and difficulties in locating fish stocks in the area after the construction of the Slipway.
“Is this a fair trade off,” Atherton said in regards to swapping sustainable living for an uncertain economic activity.
Visiting environmentalists to the area haven noticed turtles floating in the area, poisoned by some of the construction activity.
A visiting American Scientist took a picture of one such incident, where a turtle shell floated near Namua island about six months after the construction of the Slipway.
In addition to what the environmentalists have branded as the “blatant disregard” for marine life, the Samoan Government have also disregarded beneficial international environmental interests vested in the continuation of the MPA.
In 2008 Conservation International’s (CI), Executive Vice-President Dr. Claude Gascon on behalf of the Coral Reef Initiatives in the Pacific (CRISP) delivered a cheque for over ST 240,000 (approximately 67,000 Euros) for a trust fund endowment to the Aleipata and Safata MPAs Trust Fund.
Environment Minister Faumuina Tiatia Liuga said, at the time: “The Government of Samoa supports these MPAs as a good example of local and national stewardship of our marine resources.”
The Slipway which sits in the centre of the MPA, with steel piles extending 115m into the channel, installed by a vibrating hammer will be opened this Friday after months of construction work.
*The author has been reporting on environmental issues for more than ten years.