Vava'u Environmental Protection Association (VEPA)

An interns insight: Coral bleaching

Blog post by Kirstie

Corals are a beautifying agent of the ocean that connects you and me. These marine invertebrates that vary in color accommodates our marine wildlife, although it is mistaken at times as plants but are instead a fascinating marine animal. Corals have a mutually beneficial relationship with a specific type of microscopic algae known to be zooxanthellae.

Fun fact about the relationship between the corals and algae is that unlike usual algae growing in a visual figure outside of the plants and animals. Instead, zooxanthellae grow within the coral tissue acting as a coral’s primary food source and gives the coral color. Therefore, the corals have control on the number of zooxanthellae they contain by preserving and expelling the algae. So, through the colors of the corals we can then identify when corals are healthy or bleached.

        Coral bleaching occurs due to the stress they experience by human actions and the change in environmental conditions. Such as increase in seawater temperature or change in seawater chemistry. Stress can also be caused by pollution and climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions which then increases hurricanes, tornados, floods and even sea level rising which may add stress to the coral. As mentioned, corals have the ability and control on how much algae they can hold and expel and when corals are dramatically stressed by human and environmental actions, they expel so many algae. Which results in them being unable to survive as algae is their primary source of food. These causes are not only impacted by nature but also by human actions which does not only affect the coral reefs living conditions but also has a negative impact on us.  Pollution, runoff of toxins and the breaking off the coral parts are all caused by our careless habits and actions towards our environment, as our actions on land can easily affect our family at sea.

Source 1.1- Some images of corals bleached, caused by sea temperature rises, land-based pollution and runoff, and changes in ocean chemistry cause coral bleaching. (Source: NOAA)
Bleached coral

As we rely on coral reefs for the livelihood of our marine organisms that we may rely on for source of food and living but also corals reefs act as a barrier for huge waves and storms as they absorb the forces of waves and the surges of the storms. However, when coral bleaching occurs, and our coral reefs are weak and dying we then must build and rely on sea walls which has a negative impact on our coastal areas and scenery. Also, as tourism industry plays a great part on our economic development, tourists visit our shores to experience the Friendly islands beautifying corals and scenery. Who would want to travel and fly across the Pacific Ocean just to come and see plain white corals?

        Nevertheless, if we truly love our marine organisms and coastal scenery, we will work on to put a stop to the human actions that we have control of. By putting to use our reuse, reduce and recycle method as pollution does have an impact on coral bleaching.

 Also, the managing of our water usage as the more water we conserve the less wastewater enters our ocean. In addition, promote the less usage of herbicides and pesticides on the areas that runoff can occur, as this type of toxicity can intoxicate our waters and marine life creating harmful living conditions for our corals. Lastly, a usual habit of us when we visit our corals is that we hurt them by breaking, smothering, or crushing them this is the kind of mindset that needs to change as the corals grow and function of your safety benefits.

                              “The corals are our precious treasures, guarding and providing for you and I.”

Team Member Updates…..

Over the last few months and without easy communication access and in between Covid lockdowns the VEPA team has continued to change! Over the coming months we hope to share more stories from the team and especially the work through their lives and words!

My name is Talita and I’m 20 years of age. I grew up in Tonga and spend my whole life living in the island of Vava’u. I’m a Christian believer and member of Jehovah’s Witness. I belong to a poor family and I’m the youngest of five children. I lost two of my siblings five and three years ago. Life was pain at the time. 

My hobbies are reading, volunteering, playing games and singing. Back in high school Science and Geography was my two favorite subjects. In which I get to study about earth science, the environment and many more. But questions pop up like why do you like the environment? Actually because we live in the environment, we survive from the environment and our life depends on the environment. As I grew up in Vava’u I see how important the environment is to the people’s life. But one thing is that the people just can’t minimize littering, deforestation and polluting the environment. 

This issue can cause natural disaster and climate change which that affects the environment and its living thing. This has taught me why we need to contain human activities that destroys the environment and also gave me are meaning why I liked the environment that make me eager to fight for its safety. Therefore, try to give are meaning to yourself by take are look around your environment. 

Make it part of your daily work in life to keep our environment by contain activities that will affect it. We know our environment is one of our hopes in life that keeps you and me alive so make it happen! “KEEP OUR ENVIRONMENT CLEAN AND GREEN”. 

2021 in a very brief review…..

2021 was an intense year for the VEPA board and team, achieving many goals and highlights through the year. We know that vast challenges still lay ahead and that no one year will provide a solution however every small step taken is one step closer.

We are as always very thankful to our funding and technical partners, communities and everyone that is a part of the journey towards a better environment. We now close the year out and retain HOPE that 2022 will be another year of achievements, collaboration and steps towards a healthier environment. Enjoy some highlights of the work covered this year, special thanks and appreciation to the hard work of the team: Lisa, Sesimani, Susana, Mae’e, Lisi, Sesilia and the continued support, expertise and knowledge of the VEPA board.

We continued the battle for invasive species and developing new food security activities, we shared field trips and experience with communities!

Collaborated, shared and exchanged knowledge and experience across land and ocean programmes!

Thank you to everyone that was part of the journey of 2021, we wish everyone a safe and peaceful New Year, see you all next week!

Surveys for cultural and traditional knowledge on marine turtles

With the support of the SPREP led By-catch and Integrated Ecosystem Management (BIEM) Initiative, Tonga’s Ministry for the Environment (MEIDECC), Ministry of Fisheries and VEPA are working together to update and collect community information on the cultural uses and traditional knowledge on marine turtles in Tonga.

The Tongatapu survey team Ministry of Fisheries, Ministry for the Environment (MEIDECC) and VEPA team has conducted 34 surveys in Tongatapu gathering critical traditional knowledge on marine turtles.

The Tongatapu survey team from Ministry of Fisheries, Ministry for Environment (MEIDECC) and VEPA team conducted 34

surveys in Tongatapu gathering critical traditional knowledge on marine turtles.

Tonga has four known species of marine turtles: hawksbill, green, leatherback and loggerhead that are facing multiple threats to the species survival including climate change, habitat destruction, harvesting and bycatch.

Both hawksbill and green turtles are listed under the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species as critically endangered and endangered respectively.  

A green turtle rescued by Ministry of Environment and VEPA was released by the Ministry of Fisheries in early 2021.

Traditionally, turtles are harvested for cultural events and subsistence. Management plans need to be updated based on an understanding of the cultural knowledge and traditional uses to ensure their effectiveness and that all needs are considered.   The survey team has collected information across 3 island groups (Tongatapu, Vava’u and Ha’apai) with the survey concluding at the end of July 2021. Sand temperature data continues to be collected using temperature loggers that were placed in the sand in February. These two pieces of information will be presented in reports and used to strengthen marine turtle populations in Tonga.  

Team member conducts surveys with community fishers.

The BIEM Initiative is implemented by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) as part of the Pacific-European Union Marine Partnership (PEUMP) programme funded by the European Union and Government of Sweden.  

Field Blog: Partnerships for community fisheries

Blog by Sesimani Loni, SMA Project Manager, Vava’u Ocean Initiative

Fisheries is one vital part of food security for all human being and here in Tonga most people rely on fisheries for daily consumptions and income however due to depletion of marine resources, especially from our coastal waters. The Ministry of Fisheries and Government of Tonga have established a program named “Special Management Area” (SMA), where the coastal management of near-shore fisheries resources is legally given to coastal communities. The program has been running for nearly 19 years now and has 53 communities engaged across Tonga.

In the past few weeks, we have been out with some of the community people and Fisheries to fulfill our task of marking their SMA area. Prior to the opening of the sea cucumber harvesting, we’ve decided to mark two of our new SMAs which is Tefisi and Olo’ua and a few extra points at Taunga Island. This deployment has been aimed specifically to avoid stealing and illegal fishing from SMA.

We have been working together with the Ministry of Fisheries and the SMA communities especially new SMAs trying to deploy boundary markers to mark their SMA and FHR.

What is deployment?

Deployment is the process of making and deploying buoys to mark SMA boundaries in each community. This task is a must to fulfill to avoid ague between SMA communities’ people and neighbouring and non SMA communities.

Under the current Fisheries legislation, physical markers must be put in the water to identify the SMA area, VOI puts in 6 buoys per SMA to begin with as it tries to limit the potential impacts chains and ropes may have to other marine species such as whales and looks to identify other methods for marking the SMA area in the future.

Why do we conduct deployment?

  • Illegal fishing within the SMA is an ongoing problem faced with most SMA communities. Due to opening of sea cucumber harvesting, it becomes the huge concern on all SMA communities especially SMA without boundary markers. It has seen during the opening of sea cucumber harvesting last year, it put a pressure upon our marine species especially varieties of sea cucumbers and on SMA communities too. Non SMA people tend to steal from SMA areas.
  • Marking of boundaries also make clarification to both visitors and fishermen that the area is managed by the communities and are not allowed for fishing.

Who is involved in the process of deployment?

  • Deployment process involves the ministry of fisheries, Vava’u Ocean Initiative/VEPA and the SMA community. This is not a one-person responsibility; it is all related sectors responsibility to mark each SMA boundaries. It is the responsibility of the Ministry of Fisheries to provide technical support during deployment process. VEPA/VOI are responsible for importing and prepping deployment materials ready for deployment including splicing, chains cutting and making sure the buoys can be seen with reflective tape. Community are taking part on making the anchors from concrete, deploying of buoys and are responsible for patrolling and making sure that the deployed materials are not abused and damaged by fishers.

Is it important?

Yes, marking the boundaries plays an incredibly significant role in the management of a SMA. It is to mark their SMA boundaries, and this is one tool used to enforce SMA regulation for instance, coordination of the marking point is used inside court once an illegal act found done within the SMA or FHR.

This work is supported and implemented through the Vavau Ocean Initiative between Ministry of Fisheries, WAITT Institute and VEPA which has developed and implemented 6 new SMAs (one more pending) in Vava’u and provided ongoing support to 2 established SMAs.

Youth Field Report: Monitoring Red List Ecosystems with Department of Environment and Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources.

The first in a series of reports from the youth team, as they learn and explore working in the field and office. Grateful as always to the assistance of Lisa Fanua, Susana Ika and Sesimani Loni for their efforts to guide and support the youth team. Malo lahi to Department of Environment and Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources for sharing their valuable knowledge and experience.

Field blog report by Mae’e ‘Esau


Mangroves are one of the most important plants found along the coastal shore where there is tidal flow. The significance of mangroves is that they provide shelter and food for many marine species. By preventing coastal erosion, mangroves serve as defensive soldiers in the coastal environment. Humans, on the other hand, have become a growing threat to the majority of the planet’s ecosystems. The location of the mangroves site influences the ecology of mangroves. A team representing MEIDECC conducted a survey with the support of the Vava’u Environmental Protection Association (VEPA) to learn more about the different types of mangroves and how they are being affected in various areas of Vava’u.

Method of conducting the Survey.

On Tuesday, 23rd of March, one of my co-workers (Lisa) and I were able to join the mangrove survey team in visiting mangrove locations to different sited in the Eastern side of the island. The survey team were using a GPS to identify the mangroves at each site and wrote observations on the mangrove names and their conditions. The sites were Masilamea (Site A), Tefisi (Site B), Vaimalo (Site C) and Mataika (Site D).


Site A: Masilamea (Quarry Site)

The type of mangroves was the Tongolei (RS: Rhizophora stylosa). The Tongolei was spotted by its seed color, green to yellowish green. However, the mangroves were highly covered with creeper therefore its flowers were not clearly spotted.

Major Component          Tongolei Rhizophora stylosa (RS)  Source: Direct Observation

Site B: Tefisi

The type of mangrove mostly located at Tefisi coast was the Tongolei (RS: Rhizophora stylosa). Mangroves are estimated to grow 3 meters tall, green in colour which means there are no human threats around this area.

Major Component     Tongolei (RS: Rhizophora stylosa)          Source: Direct Observation

Site C: Vaimalo

Mangroves at Vaimalo consist of two varieties of Tongolei mangroves which is the Rhizophora mangle and the Rhizophora stylosa. Rhizophora mangle is different from the other variety shown by the seeds or fruits. Its seed color is dark green on top and brownish to the bottom. As for the Rhizophora stylosa, its seed is yellowish green. However, the mangroves were dying along the coastal area. The figure shown below does not clearly display the mangroves of Vaimalo instead, it is the coast view of Vaimalo that has mangroves on the Western side which is not shown in the picture.

Mangroves in the distance at Vaimalo.


Site D: Mataika

There were 4 varieties of mangroves located at the coast of Mataika. The Rhizophora mangle and Rhizophora stylosa (Tongolei), Heritiera littoralis (Mamea) and Excoecaria agallocha (Feta’anu).  The Rhizophora mangle and Rhizophora stylosa were also located in the previous sites. The Heritiera littoralis was located from its leaves, dark green with its seed which is green to brown color. The Excoecaria agallocha was easily identified by its shape and leaf.

Threats to Mangroves Growth.

There was a huge threat to the mangroves at Vaimalo (Site C). The location of mangroves at Vaimalo, land area is slopy therefore all waste from land washed down to the mangroves. In addition, the land area happens to be the dumping area of the village. Waste such as nappies, plastics, cans, and clothing are all washed to the coast together with the soil. Also, at Site D there was a threat to mangroves as unattended nets are found on the area of mangroves. There are also threats such as constructing wharfs, dumping rubbish and other human activities that affects the growth of mangroves.

                                    Site C: Vaimalo

Unattended Net
     Source: Direct Observation


Association, Vavau Environmental Protection. “Environmental Ambassador Workbook.” VEPA. Mangroves for Climate Change Adaptation Manual. 2013. 10.

“Mangrove Report 1: Identification of Mangrove Species.” Shunsuke Yarita, Hoifua Aholahi, 2012. 22-31.

Field Notes: Hot sands and endangered species

Beaches are an ecological wonder, home to a wide variety of species that live within the beach or migrate to the beach as part of their lifecycle, yet beaches are facing increasing changes and environmental impacts from human uses, erosion, land development and climate change. These impacts are not only on the habitat but also the myriad of land, coastal and marine animals that play a vital role in beach ecosystems and for those animals beaches maybe getting too hot!

So how are beaches getting too hot? The short answer is climate change, the elephant in the room in too many circumstances! Oceans are one of the most important carbon sinks, however increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from global warming are making sea temperatures rise even further and these rising temperatures maybe changing beach sand which is critical to many animals.

Marine turtles are among many species that rely on beaches for part of their lifecycle and ongoing survival of the species. Female turtles migrate back to the beaches within the area that they themselves were born in, sometime travelling hundreds of kilometres to reach it. Here in Tonga, our nesting species are primarily Green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) whom migrate through Samoa and Fiji as part of their lifecycle.

When a female turtle has reached sexual maturity (Greens 20-50 years, Hawkbill 3-5years) and mated with a male, the migration to the beach begins and the need to dig a nest in the beach sands and/or shoreline vegetation above the high tide seas. Green turtles are immensely strong giving that an adult female can weigh between 68-190kg1 and drag (crawl) their heavy body up often over high sand banks that change with the waves and current movements. If the location chosen is not suitable, the female turtle will try another crawl until nesting is successful and the eggs are laid deep within the sands.

Wouldn’t turtle eggs want warm sand to incubate? Yes, however warm sands are a natural occurrence in the tropical islands and the turtle eggs rely on specific temperatures for the hatching gender of baby turtles. For the eggs to hatch as male, the sand temperature is optimally <27.7℃/81.6℉ and for female turtles optimally >31℃/87.8℉. Temperatures in between these two optimal numbers will produce a mix of male and female babies2. If the sands get too hot then turtle populations may be dominated by females and threaten the long term sustainability of an already threatened and endangered species.

So how do we know what the temperatures are? By placing small temperature sensors into the sand on known turtle nesting beaches, that will automatically record the temperature every 4-6 hours as programmed. These sensors will remain in place for 12 months and data will be collected every 4-6 months. The air temperatures are collected through local weather information such as at Lupepau’u Airport tower and local weather stations.

The turtle beach and nesting field activities are supported under the By-catch and Integrated Ecosystem Management (BIEM) program through the Secretariat of the Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP) as part of the regional Pacific European Union Marine Programme (PEUMP) funded by the European Union and Sweden.

Activities undertaken in Tonga are in partnership with the Department of Environment (MEIDECC) and Ministry of Fisheries. More information on the initiative can be read here.


1 Body weight of Green turtles

2 Nesting temperature for marine turtles

Coral Reef Monitoring: finding hope

In October, project activities included monitoring the coral reef habitats within the Vava’u Archipelago, with this the 5th consecutive year following on from the “Rapid Assessment of Biodiversity of Vava’u (BioRAP)” in 2014 through Government of Tonga and Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP).

Coral reefs worldwide are under immense threats and pressures to survive and provide the critical habitats for biodiversity and the resource benefits that humans gain. Long term impacts from overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change need to be addressed both globally and locally, of which the team here can advocate and expand upon through communities and supporting management and policy activities.

The team of marine researchers from the Department of Environment (DoE) and VEPA are currently identifying and monitoring ongoing changes to the near-shore coral reef habitats. The replicated sites include inner harbour, channel islands and reefs and outer islands, 7 sites are from the BioRAp in 2014.

Sweets (Tu’amelie Fusimalohi) from DoE records coral recruitment

Vava’u was once known for its pristine reefs and abundance of reef fish and invertebrates however has taken a downward spiral in coral reef health and species dynamics over the last 30-40 years impacting upon biodiversity and livelihood security.

Why? A common question about the reef status but the answer is not an easy statement or clear single issue, in fact its decades of compounded issues from coastal development to fishing pressure, unsustainable practices to climate change, Crown of Thorns (‘Alamea), pollution and sedimentation (see there is sadly a lot going on!) but which one occurred when and which is having the biggest ongoing impact.

Looking to the future and resilience of the coral reef habitats is important, identifying on going impacts that adaptable management can undertake and reduce is one step to seeing how the reefs will survive and the hope that they thrive in the future.

Management programs such as marine protected areas and special management areas (community based fisheries management areas) play a vital role in the future of marine habitats and marine biodiversity and the outcomes of developing shared monitoring and governance roles will also aim to ensure ownership is transferred and beneficial to multiple sectors and stakeholders.

The research team reviews data and reflections on the week Photo © Lahaina Tatafu, DoE Intern and Deep Blue Diving

Yet, the photo above is one that gives VEPA great hope for the future, the growth of researchers in country, committed not just through research but the very core of ensuring that ownership is passed between generations.

The 2020 annual research and monitoring was supported by the Strengthening Protected Area Management (SPAM), Italian Ministry of Environment, Land and Sea under Department of Environment (MEIDECC).

S.E.A Program Coming Soon……

Under the Vava’u Ocean Initiative in partnership with the Waitt Institute and Ministry of Fisheries, we are excited and delighted for the upcoming launch of the Special Management Area (SMA) Environmental Ambassador Program (S.E.A).

SMA Committee Member at ‘Ovaka

Special Management Areas (SMAs) are a community based fisheries program under the Ministry of Fisheries since 2002, which allows for communities to manage near-shore marine habitats and resources, within each gazetted boundary is a Fish Habitat Reserve (FHR) or no-take area as well as ongoing development of aquaculture areas that support livelihoods.

The S.E.A program is a joint initiative to further shared knowledge and field activities for community monitoring on environmental issues such as land based pollution and water quality and threats (overfishing and climate change) but will also cover knowledge on coral reef habitats, intertidal areas and mangroves.

Over the next 4 months, each outer island SMA community in Vava’u will select a representative for the ambassador program to engage in a 2-week initiative (2 communities represented at a time) alongside VEPA and Ministry of Fisheries staff with a final barbecue (our favourite sausage sizzle) for all participants at the end of the project. This is a paid internship program approved by the CEO, Dr Halafihi of the Ministry of Fisheries under the project Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for Vava’u Ocean Initiative.

Field activities will include a range of basic monitoring programs that ambassadors can conduct in their own SMA such as monitoring and managing Crown of Thorn (‘Alamea) populations, intertidal habitats, coral health, water quality and waste management practices sharing information and knowledge about current practices and status that will further the SMA management program.

Photo by Karyn Von Engelbrechten © 2019

Ambassadors will also share activities in data collection on other programs such as fish gut surveys for micro plastics and invasive species management to show the different local approaches to supporting monitoring and evaluation of the environment and habitats.

So yeap! We are excited and can’t wait to share the upcoming activities and stories and to learn further from the outer island communities about their experiences.

Thorn in our Side….

Well actually the thorns mostly hit our fingers and for many of us the memories of the week stay in the tingling tips of our fingers.

What were we up to? Removing those nasty, spine heavy starfish called Crown of Thorns (COTS), (Acanthaster planci) or locally known as ‘Alamea.

Did you know that COTS can have up to 21 arms and reach diameters of over 80cm! The spines are long and carry a toxin in them that will make your fingers swell up and be extremely painful. Though the toxin is not life threatening, several stings can be quite traumatic and care needs to be taken.

COTS starfish are a native but voracious predator to coral reefs in the Pacific region and for a starfish are able to move fast covering 20 meters per hour (Ref), they eat the fleshy polyp of the coral leaving a trail of white destruction.


The white coral skeleton left behind as the predatory COTS moves on to the healthy side. Photo credit: © Karyn Von Engelbrechten

As COTS are native to coral reefs, small occurrences can be beneficial (estimates of 6-20 per km2), however when occurrences are observed over this and destruction of corals is extremely visible, management practices need to happen. The COTS natural predators include the Triton Trumpet (Charonia tritonis), Kele’a and some fish species including Napoleaon Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), puffer fish (Arothron hispidus) and triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens) (Ref) however these  predator species are often in low abundance and slow moving to be able to deal with COTS on a frequent basis.



The SCUBA team from Department of Environment, Penikoni ‘Aleamotua, Senituli Finau and Brian Fusimalohi. Photo credit © Karyn Von Engelbrechten



Population outbreaks are strongly linked to nutrients enrichment primarily from heavy rain fall and subsequent run off and it appears from surveys conducted we have “hotspots” located near channels and high current areas. When COTS spawn, they release eggs which are fertilised and develop into larvae which are carried currents, these larvae settle on other coral reefs, allowing for other reef sites to be affected.





SCUBA diver from VEPA removes COTS using barbecue tongs and places them in a flour sack to be brought back to land. Photo credit: © Karyn Von Engelbrechten

Currently, our only way to manage COTS is with active hands on removal, though worldwide new techniques have emerged for injecting them with vinegar, we currently don’t have the equipment to manage them this way. Manual management programs are costly and to be able to maintain and monitor COTS populations, we need to be out there as often as possible whilst at the same time looking for way to gain the equipment that would ease the management process.

In order to make sure manual management is successful, the following is critical:

  • COTS must not be broken up when removing, each arm can become a new COTS if broken
  • Care is taken not to damage other corals around when removing the COTS
  • COTS must be removed completely from the ocean
  • Use long tongs to keep hands a safe distance away from the spines
  • Wear heavy builder gloves (not always available here) to protect from spikes but be mindful not to grab on to live corals around (its why we are gloveless!)
  • If your fingers meet a spine and gets pricked, make the affected area bleed through the pricked area as much as possible and for as long as possible immediately following the incident

It is extremely important that COTS are removed effectively and that management practices are adhered to, otherwise “help” can create an even bigger “storm in the teacup”.

Over the course of the 3 day management programme we removed 638 individuals from primarily 3 reef areas. Still today, we are getting reports from kind visitors about other areas they are seeing. We hope to be out there again soon and developing ways that communities and tourism operators can assist.


Data is collected on the minimum and maximum diameter of the COTS by the SCUBA and snorkel teams. Photo credit: © Karyn Von Engelbrechten


Penikoni ‘Aleamotua from Department of Environment, uses a pry tool to remove the COTS without damaging it. Photo credit © Karyn Von Engelbrechten











The oceans and coral reefs face many threats from over exploitation (fishing), climate change and pollution (land and marine based) and COTS outbreaks are high on the list too.

The COTS marine team consisted of trained SCUBA divers from the Department of Environment (MEIDECC), Ministry of Fisheries and the VEPA team. These partnerships are invaluable to the future of our corals and coastal management.

This program was funded jointly by the “Strengthening Protected Area Management (SPAM)” through the Department of Environment and VEPA (through grateful donations!) and the vessel was provided by the Ministry of Fisheries. Big thanks as well to Karyn Von Engelbrechten for the photos that help us to tell the story.

Further Reading: