23 November 2016
Before Tara raised anchor to set off for Niue Island, the scientists on board were invited to visit Aitutaki Island and meet a surprising islander. Dismayed at seeing the island’s lagoon slowly waste away, Charley Waters decided to take action by planting corals and giant clams.
Between the aerodrome and the Aitutaki lagoon, the marine biology research center sits amongst the wrecks of canoes and pickups corroded by rust. A long sheet-metal hangar transformed into a conference room now houses about 20 schoolchildren accompanied by a few local citizens. Smiling people are gathered around the large breeding tanks with giant clams at the bottom, accompanied by a stonefish. At Charley’s invitation, the scientists aboard Tara came to learn about the Reef Keepers’ project. With a handful of young volunteers, Charley has set out to safeguard the lagoon he fell in love with 14 years ago.
«My initial plan was to go to work in Manihiki (a neighboring island in the Cook archipelago), but when I discovered the lagoon here, I knew this was the place I’d been looking for. What convinced me was the welcome I received from the island inhabitants and the local government. They realized they could not save the lagoon with their limited resources. I had experience in marine biology and was ready to help them, so that’s how it all started.»
Giant clam tanks on Aitutaki Island of © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Charley projects images of the lagoon corals to an audience of astonished children, describing the threats confronting these animals, often unfamiliar to the younger kids. Here, as in many Pacific islands, corals in the lagoon have suffered severe degradation caused by chemical spills on island soils, over-consumption of marine resources and increased waste. In the audience, a fisherman asks Charley about the need to integrate traditional knowledge into a future protection program. Because without the involvement of the island’s fishermen, a scientist could wind up working alone against everyone else.
«The tradition of fishing has a long history here and very often tradition and science come into conflict » says Charley. « The difficulty is that some traditional knowledge is not based on science but on beliefs. Some islanders, for example, think that if the giant clams have disappeared from the lagoon it’s because they’re jealous of the ones we have introduced. For years I’ve explained that giant clams are not jealous, but their belief still distorts the facts. On the other hand, without being scientists, some people here have an extraordinary knowledge of the marine ecosystem, reproductive cycles and species behavior.»
A Reef Keepers volunteer planting coral © Pierre de Parscau
Between local politics and willingness to change, Charley decided to go hands-on and invited young people to experiment with planting coral in the nearby lagoon. By fixing coral debris on a cement base with epoxy, these one-day gardeners are replanting the coral and will see it develop anew in 4 to 5 weeks. It’s a proven technique in the Maldives and in Australia whose promising results could help us convince young people here of the importance of the coral reef for the island’s health.
« It’s essential they understand that this is a virtuous circle,» said Charley. « The more corals there are, the more fish there will be and the better their quality of life. I think many schoolchildren don’t know much about the lagoon simply because they can’t afford a mask and a snorkel.»
TARA scientists learn how to plant coral © Pierre de Parscau
Today, however, the children of Aitutaki were able to enjoy the underwater beauty wearing snorkeling masks. But under the surface, the reefs have indeed been transformed in recent years — an upheaval that could ultimately jeopardize the local economy and the very survival of these island societies.
« We are still working against what we call the “sliding reference” syndrome, that is, what we consider today to be healthy coral was not healthy for previous generations. I think the time has come to be extremely careful about the next steps in protecting the lagoon. I would very much like to see a strategic plan set up in response to the studies done here. Very often in the Cook Islands, governments think that conducting studies is solving the problem, but as scientists we know it’s only part of the equation. We have studied enough and I think it’s time to take action »
A volunteer comes forward and gives a short prayer in Maori to invite the gods of the island to watch over these freshly replanted corals before the visitors disperse. Charley knows that the road will be long to rally the Aitutaki islanders to his cause, but he will at least have contributed his stone to the gigantic coral edifice.
Pierre de Parscau
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