When a Starfish hides

A few years ago during one of the most severe occurrences of El Nino – this starfish, did something quite uncharacteristic at Siumu, it was sought cover, it adjusted it’s start shape into a tangled shape to fit under a dead coral, to hide from the heat of the sun as it scourged acres of exposed coral over days.

By Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson

The reaction of the starfish – shows the value corals and coral reefs in supporting the diversity of life associated with shallow-water reef ecosystems.

The Siumu area supports a diverse range of species of fishes, invertebrates, plants, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals.

Our corals are dying and with it our fragile marine ecosystems, coastal community livelihoods and life on our islands as we know it.

Samoas coral cover has been decreasing at a dramatic pace in the past ten years – causing surprise and alarm among the scientific community.

According to the findings of the Tara Pacific Expedition published last year – based on research conducted over a period of three years in 124 site across Samoa, coral cover is below 10% for the majority of the sites.

“Coral cover is below 10% in over 80% of the 124 sites considered,” the Expedition Report Stated.

The Scientists noted that although some signs of bleaching had been observed on their route, the reefs of Upolu proved to be in a far more degraded state.

But the Scientists did not expect such dire results – given the fact that we are geographically isolated they expected to find a well-preserved reef as indicated in the available data and satellite images which pointed to a rich diversity of coral ecosystems. But such was not the case. Over half of the sites had less than 1% coral cover with some of those having gone from 60% coral cover to less than 1% in a period of two years.

The causes of the degradation were attributed to several factors by the Scientists. Local human activities, extreme events such as El Nino, cyclones and ocean warming.

Local human activities include the release of sewage and waste water into the ocean, as well as overfishing. Unless you’ve been safely tucked away in a cave – we all know that these are real problems for our coastal communities – with toilets, kitchens and showers located conveniently just next to the ocean for easy release of waste water. Frankly with all the building regulations, environmental legislations and awareness programmes in place at the national level – such practices should be a thing of the past.

According to the Scientists of Tara Expedition human activities could be having an impact on the capacity of already weakened or damaged corals to recuperate.

In a separate study by Richard Vevers on Pacific coral reefs – he notes that increasingly, coral colonies around the world are being bleached (turning white) when water temperatures rise.

When corals die it can no longer support all the fish and other animals which depend on live coral and by way of that it is no longer able to provide the resources which our coastal communities depend on for sustenance and livelihoods.

Simply put – no corals, no fish!

This has far reaching impacts not just on families that depend on fisheries for their food, but for their income selling fish, sea or other marine products at the market and on the road side for their other livelihood needs.

In addition to this direct impact – there is also the issue of tourism. When corals die – the reef loses its colourful appearance and anyone who snorkels will tell you, that when that happens, it is not a pretty site, and not worth getting the hair wet for it. With a significant percentage of our tourism establishments located in coastal areas – the state of our oceans are very much relevant to this multi-million dollar industry.

Some communities have taken proactive measures to restore their marine ecosystems through community based management practises as seen in Saipipi, Falealupo and Moata’a. Marine protected areas supported by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in partnership with local communities are another approach.

These measures help, but they need to be much bigger in scale to make a true lasting difference.

But as Mark Eakin, a NOAA coral reef scientist told the Time magazine: “You can’t grow back a 500-year old coral in 15 years.”

So perhaps its better we work on ways to prevent any further damage to our corals, and work on ways to restore and rehabilitate the ones which have already degraded beyond our control. Before it is too late.


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