Project Description: Coral Reef Conservation with One People One Reef in Micronesia

Summary

Traditional fishing practices have sustained the indigenous people of Ulithi Atoll and other Micronesian outer island communities for centuries. However, rapid change brought to these remote islands by WWII, the availability of powerboats, and other factors has altered the marine ecosystem and cultural fishing practices in ways that make it difficult for the people living there today to catch enough fish to feed their families. At the request of local island chiefs and other community leaders, a team of western-trained ecologists teamed up with local fishermen to jointly assess the health of Ulithi’s coral reefs and the resident fish populations. Working together, the fishermen and scientists are finding ways to restore a sustainable subsistence fishery. Since 2013, CSUMB students from the IfAME’s Ecosystem Electronics Lab (EEL) have been leading the deep reef research component of the OPOR program. By using small-but-capable ROVs, time-lapse undersea cameras, and other technologies to collect video data from water up to 150 m (500 feet) deep, the team is able to provide the islanders with valuable and otherwise inaccessible information about the health of their deep reefs and the availability of potential food sources living there.

Student Involvement

To date, this project has enabled five undergraduate students (three in 2016) to travel to these remote islands, where they have learned about traditional island cultures of Yap and Ulithi and gained experience using technology to study deep reef environments. These students, plus an additional 10 undergraduates and 2 graduate students, developed valuable electronics and programming skills while designing and building some of the custom subsea equipment used for this field research.

Broader Significance

Ulithi is a microcosm of so much that is happening in the world today. Its people face a variety of environmental, economic, and cultural challenges, but they are also a source of innovative solutions that hold great promise for the future. The OPOR project is a successful model of local environmental stewardship driven from within an indigenous community, rather than being imposed from the outside. It’s also a model of how western science can be used to augment, rather than replace, traditional knowledge. Based on the evidence gathered by OPOR, the recipe for sustainability on Ulithi appears to involve, at least in part, a return to traditional fishing practices. That’s a win-win for a place where both the fish populations and the indigenous culture have been rapidly disappearing. CSUMB students involved in this project got a chance to experience and learn from all of this first hand and will be better equipped to help other communities find sustainable solutions to their real-world challenges. In terms of basic science, our ROV observations of Ulithi’s deep reefs are among the few scientific observations of mesophotic coral ecosystems (MCEs) in remote Pacific regions. Because the occur deeper than normal scuba diving limits, MCEs are difficult to study, but they are hypothesized to provide refugia for many species threatened by rising sea surface temperatures on shallower coral reefs and have therefore become a new focal area for research.

IfAME Principal Investigator

Dr. Steve Moore

Financial Support

CSUMB UROC; private donations

Field Support

Boats and other logistical support provided by the people of Ulithi Atoll, Federated State of Micronesia

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