The History of our Project
In 2004 The Oceanic Society began work with the community of Falalop on Ulithi Atoll.
The Ulithi Sea Turtle Project, founded in 2007, is a community based conservation of Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas), ecological protection and sustainable maintenance, and a small ecotourism project to help provide sustainable benefits to the local community.The unique, community-focused efforts of Dr. Jennifer Cruce inspired the community to reach out and ask for help even though other ‘conservation’ efforts had failed.
At the communities request, our team met in Falalop during the Summer of 2011 to assess the feasibility of expanding conservation efforts to include locally managed marine areas (LMMA’s), among other management approaches for sustainable marine resource extraction. The community signed a Declaration of Intent to support the development of a locally-managed marine resource management plan.
Changing Climate, Changing Reef
Like many Pacific Island Nation communities, Ulithi and the Outer Islands are on the ‘front lines’ of rapid ecological change. Resource management and protection is critical to their sovereignty and cultural integrity.
Our project has succeeded in implementing community-based marine management by developing an authenticated Marine Resource Management plan. The communities of Falalop, Asor and Mog Mog designed and implemented their management plans and are spreading the word to other islands.
The problem and the solutions:
Coral reefs around the world are currently suffering from multiple stressors. The status of coral reefs and associated fisheries of many remote island communities in the Western Pacific is not well known, yet these communities rely heavily on their reef resources. There is a dearth of research in this region of the world. Coupled with a loss of traditional management and recent changes in fishing practices, this has led to a steady decline in both needed resources and reef health.
Through extensive reef surveys, interviews, and community meetings, our work on Ulithi Atoll, Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia has shown that the communities are experiencing a decline in both fish catch and reef health. With food security concerns, biological invasions, ecosystem degradation and climate change associated problems (including erosion and sea level rise), it is a key moment in history to work together to sustain the environment and cultural integrity of the outer islands, which in turn will support global ocean protection.
Some of the issues are:
- A reduction in numbers of different kinds of fishing techniques. A diversity of techniques helps maintain a diversity in the fish targeted. Traditionally many islands used over 70 different kinds of fishing, ranging from different gear types, to different depths fished, to specific reefs, and even who does the fishing. Each of these targeted different fish. Now, with the advent of motor boats, spear guns and nets, among others, there is more of an emphasis on these few and generally effective methods, which are driving down certain fish stocks.
- A loss of traditional management. Historically, reefs and resources were managed through a complex system of regulations and ceremonial frameworks. Although those management schemes still exist, many are not enforced, and some have been forgotten. Once communities are aware of the effects of their fishing practices, they can reinstate traditional management for which there already exists a cultural context.
- The advent of motor boats and storage capacity such as freezers. Motor boats have led to a loss of canoes. With rising gas prices, people cannot travel far to fish. This means nearby fishing areas are becoming overfished. In turn, the freezers allow a way to store fish, and even send some off island to family members on the main island of Yap, or even Guam and Hawaii. This interferes with traditional systems of dividing up the catch.
- More concentrated populations, and poor treatment of sewage and organic waste. Although total population has not risen in these islands, there are places where it is more concentrated (such as on the two islands that have high schools where youth are sent during the school year). This organic waste flows onto the reefs and encourages the growth of algae, which can damage corals.
- Phase shifts. We have recorded a weedy (though likely native) coral that has overgrown many reefs, covering them with one dominant species of coral (a species of Montipora). The local science team are monitoring its growth.
- There are other issues such as health (which is linked to a lack of food from the reefs), and agriculture (declining Taro patches and other plant foods), which this project can help address through community meetings and a unified approach to health. Hofag!
Managing and conserving oceans in regions where people rely directly on the reefs for their livelihoods should start with an understanding of the problems, and of the cultural, historical and ecological context of environmental change. It must start with the people themselves.
Communities in the Federated States of Micronesia autonomously govern over one million square miles of ocean in the Western Pacific – extending more than 1700 miles from west to east across one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. The people of the Outer Islands hold the key to successful management and conservation in this vast archipelago.
Our data collection methods
We used a knowledge-based approach to facilitate adaptive management planning – flexible plans that can be altered as needed. This approach, similar to those used for many years by ethnobotanists and investigators exploring plant based medicinals, relies on a two way exchange of knowledge to develop management plans with the best chance for success. The science team needs information and knowledge from the community about what the main issues are, what approaches have been tried, which work and which do not work, what the major barriers are, and importantly what they see as some of the key ecological changes on their reefs over time. We conduct interviews and community meetings with as many different demographics as possible including leaders, men, women, community elders, and youth. In exchange, the science team conducts thorough surveys of the reefs to assess the ecological state, and some of the patterns that may shed light on the problems at hand. This knowledge is shared with the community to help them make informed decisions.
Our approach involves a combination of social science and ecological assessments to work with communities developing their own management plans. The plans themselves and the implementation of the plans comes from the community, and our team of scientists facilitate by providing scientific information and management advice where needed. We do not suggest committees or committee members, we do not suggest a specific approach (such as an MPA) and we do not set benchmarks for the community to meet. Rather, we discuss these needs with the community leaders, and let them come up with the components for an effective management plan. An important aspect of our approach is to identify traditional methods, and suggest incorporation of those where possible.
Community and science team members work together to develop a set of possible management strategies, incorporating the existing management and traditional approaches we have learned about. We discuss the implications of the different strategies, listening to what has worked and not worked in the past.
Participating islands have a data collection team; a group of people who collect data on fish landings, and coral growth. This provides valuable information for the people to use in the planning, and to assess whether it is working.
For the reef surveys, the science team conducted shallow (2-10 meter) surveys on snorkel due to the remote location and difficulty of getting scuba gear to the site for extended periods of time. Our site surveys consist of fish diversity and abundance, coral morphology and colony size, percent cover of major invertebrates, and algal abundance. We also conducted large and small scale rugosity (reef complexity). surveys, and some night surveys for coral recruitment. These data were analyzed for a variety of patterns. We found a very clear pattern of reef types around Ulithi. In general, reefs had higher diversity of coral, more species of fish and more fish biomass (more fish in general) the farther the sites were from village and landing sites, and if the sites were ocean facing rather than lagoon facing. Please note that there is more work to be done to fully analyze the data and assess the fisheries.
We also surveyed the extent of the ‘invasive’ or fast growing and dominant Montipora species we identified (it is of concern to the island people). This appears to be a relatively (15-25 years) recent coral. We documented a corallimorph (genus Rhodactis), which can be toxic. The community knew of it and was concerned about its toxicity.