The Blog Aquatic » tourism News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Ground Beneath Their Feet: The Threat of Ocean Acidification to a Small Island Thu, 10 Jul 2014 23:18:04 +0000 Alexis Valauri-Orton

What if the ground beneath your feet, the very foundation of your life and livelihood, was at risk of eroding away?  What if the very thing from which you and your community draw 95% of your wealth was at risk of disappearing?

This is the reality that Aitutaki, a small island in the Cook Islands, and many other small islands around the world, are facing.  Aitutaki, and its stunning lagoon, is protected by a coral reef.  Powerful ocean waves crash on the edges of the reef, but because coral reduces wave strength by 97%, the lagoon and the coral sand beaches remain still and calm.  The value of this protection, and the environment it creates, cannot be overstated.

I spent seven weeks in the Cook Islands as part of my Watson Fellowship studying how ocean acidification might affect communities, and for six of those weeks I called the 6.5 mi2 island with 1,800 residents home. During that visit, I saw not only how delicate the island’s ecosystem is in the face of global stressors like climate change and ocean acidification, but also the value of the thriving economy and society built squarely on its coral.

The skeletons of coral are made of calcium carbonate—the same substance that forms the shells of oysters, mussels and clams.  As the ocean becomes more acidic, it becomes more difficult for coral and shellfish to form the calcium carbonate they need. Eventually, coral won’t be able to rebuild its skeleton as quickly as it is broken down.  Recent studies show that by mid-century, a majority of coral around the world will have trouble building their skeletons.

If the coral protecting Aitutaki is damaged by ocean acidification, or rising sea temperatures, the whole island is at risk.  The coral not only protects the island from waves and storms, it also creates the spectacular lagoon and marine habitat that supports the island’s dominant economy: tourism.

An officer in the Cook Islands Ministry of Tourism told me that he believes tourism accounts for 95% of his country’s GDP.  Just like the scallops in Sechura, the economy based on coral and the lagoon extends beyond the water to an entire hospitality industry, ranging from food services to transport to lodging.  And just like in Sechura, the economic boon created by marine resources creates immense opportunities and growth for local communities and families.  Before tourism, the people of Aitutaki lived off the land and sea.  The influx of money from tourism has created a whole new way of life; one in which food is flown in to this remote island from around the world, where islanders go abroad for education, and where traditional knowledge of subsistence living has all but disappeared.

Minister of Marine Resources for the Cook Islands, Teina Bishop, explained the predicament of this new economy very plainly. “Tourism is our industry, and the pillars of tourism are our environment and our culture.  If the coral goes away, we lose tourism.  If we lose tourism, we lose income, and people will leave.”

Yes, tourism now dominates the economy of Aitutaki and allows islanders more than just a subsistence livelihood.  But ocean acidification and rising sea temperatures, the very stresses that threaten the tourism industry, would also damage the island and the ability of islanders to return to a subsistence livelihood. That means it’s just not the current way of life on Aitutaki that is threatened, it is all life.  It is their home that is threatened.

And that’s what struck me.  Ocean acidification could impact all life on small islands around the world—islands that, like Aitutaki, depend on coral for the very ground beneath their feet.  But that doesn’t have to be Aitutaki’s reality.  When I asked the Mayor of Aitutaki, John Baxter, about the future, he said, “I am hopeful.” There is momentum around the world to reduce carbon pollution—the main cause of ocean acidification—and cutting-edge research is being done to better understand how corals respond to changing oceans.  But more needs to be done, and we all need to do our part.  In the United States, you can support increased funding for science by signing our petition to Congress.  Research efforts here can lend important information to islands like Aitutaki, and help give Mayor Baxter a reason to be hopeful.

Chunks of coral skeleton line the northern beaches of Aitutaki.  Over time, these skeletons break down and form the fine sand that fills the lagoon and delights tourists. An aerial photo I snapped on my way into Aitutaki shows how the brilliant turquoise of the lagoon dramatically shifts to a deep ocean blue, right where the coral drops off. Large waves crash on the edges of the coral reef, only a few hundred feet off shore. Tourists spent up to $10,000 to come to Aitutaki for the chance to catch and release the mighty bonefish, as these men are doing here. Tourists disembark a lagoon cruise that has just arrived at one of the islets within Aitutaki’s lagoon. Destination weddings are a large source of income for Aitutaki.  Here, Bishop Cruises (owned by Minister of Marine Resources, Teina Bishop), has assembled a marriage arch on the stunning beach of One Foot island. The shores of this islet, called Honeymoon Island, could erode quickly if strong waves reached them. Louis, Mike and Cruise play traditional island songs for the patrons on the Bishops Cruise to One Foot Island. Puna has been leading lagoon cruises for 20 years, and hopes the lagoon will stay healthy enough to support his children and grandchildren. A young girl performs island dances for a crowd at a beach restaurant. Islanders line up outside of the Cook Islands Christian Church on ANZAC Day.  What may be a week-long visit in paradise to some is a home with a rich history to others. Teina Bishop, Minister of Marine Resources, is working with his office to enact local measures that will protect coral. My host mother, Eikura, wades in the lagoon in the pouring rain, setting a net to catch our dinner.  She told me of how much has changed about her home since tourism took over the economy, saying that the young people simply don’t know how to fish and farm like she did as a child. Louis, one of the entertainers on the Bishops Cruise, introduced me to his young niece.  Islanders are worried that the youngest generation won’t know how to return to a subsistence living if tourism can no longer support their economy. John Baxter, the mayor of Aitutaki, poses next to the truck of his family’s business.  He is hopeful that Aitutaki will remain strong, despite the growing challenges the island and its ecosystem face. ]]> 4
Smarter Arctic Choices Begin With More Arctic Science Fri, 21 Sep 2012 21:01:48 +0000 Andrew Hartsig
Today, Alaska Senator Mark Begich introduced important new legislation that would establish a permanent program to conduct research, monitoring, and observing activities in the Arctic. If passed, Senator Begich’s bill could lead to significant advances in Arctic science that can then be used to support decisions about the management of a region that is crucial not only to the people who live there, but to the world.

Senator Begich’s bill – the Arctic Research, Monitoring, and Observing Act of 2012 – recognizes that the Arctic is undergoing profound changes. Temperatures in the Arctic are warming at twice the rate of the global average, seasonal sea ice is diminishing rapidly, and there is increased interest in oil exploration, commercial fishing, shipping, and tourism. As the legislation acknowledges, however, lack of integration and coordination among existing Arctic research and science programs has limited our ability to understand the important changes that are taking place in the Arctic. And our understanding of the Arctic marine ecosystem, which provides irreplaceable benefits, is further hampered by a lack of reliable baseline data, critical science gaps, and limited documentation and application/use of traditional knowledge. In addition to urgently needed baseline data and analysis of ecosystem functions in Arctic marine waters, the legislation would enable the gathering of information about subsistence resources and patterns of use in local economies, which are essential to the people and cultures coastal communities in the Arctic.

Senator Begich’s bill takes several steps to address these problems. First, it calls on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission to establish a national Arctic research program plan to help coordinate scientific research activities in the region. Second, it funds a merit-based grant program that will support new scientific research and field-work in the Arctic. Third, the bill provides funding to establish and support long-term ocean observing systems and monitoring programs in the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea, and North Pacific.

If these provisions become law and are implemented correctly, they could function as a long-term, integrated science and monitoring program for the Arctic, something that Ocean Conservancy has long advocated. A coordinated research program would help fill important gaps in our knowledge of Arctic ecosystems and identify areas that are especially important to the functioning of the marine ecosystem. Just as important, a long-term monitoring and observing program would help us understand how the region is responding to climate change and industrial development.

This kind of understanding gives policy-makers, decision-makers and stakeholders the knowledge they need to make informed choices about activities such as oil exploration, shipping, and commercial fishing. It can also inform decisions about conservation. For instance, as scientists gain more knowledge about the Arctic marine ecosystem and as they integrate and synthesize that knowledge they will be better able to identify critical areas that should be protected from development activities. And that will help ensure that the Arctic Ocean remains an intact and productive ecosystem well into the future.

Federal agencies are already making management decisions that will have significant impacts on the future of the Arctic Ocean. Americans want those decisions to be based on sound science and to ensure sustainable uses of our ocean resources for this and future generations. The Arctic research, monitoring, and observing activities addressed by Senator Begich’s bill would take an essential step toward that goal.

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