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.
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.
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.
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. www.peump.dev
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?
Who is involved in the process of deployment?
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.
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
MANGROVE SURVEY EXPERIENCE
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).
MANGROVES FOUND ON SITES.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/green-turtle
2 Nesting temperature for marine turtles https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/temperature-dependent.html
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
The Vava’u Environmental Protection Association (VEPA) is a NGO based in Neiafu, Vava’u dedicated to the conservation of biodiversity, increasing community knowledge of environmental issues and securing sustainable livelihoods for future generations. VEPA operates a range of terrestrial and marine based projects to achieve this goal. VEPA recently collaborated with Ocean Ambassadors, working together on plastic pollution initiatives for Vava’u.
The goal of this project is to reach-out to communities and to develop a broader understanding about plastics and its impacts. Plastic pollution negatively affects local habitats and environments (land and sea) as well being toxic to humans and animals. Many Tongan’s are unaware that discarded plastics can kill animals and destroy habitats.
The project includes community outreach, plastic clean-ups with youth groups and communities and sorting plastics for repurpose. The aim of the project is to correlate data on the different types of plastics that are being imported and to find solutions to reduce and remove plastic pollution from Vava’u.
Community Awareness Events to Minimise Plastic Consumption
VEPA Staff and the Ocean Ambassadors team completed an awareness presentation to youth groups, schools and coastal communities which included some of the outer islands of Vava’u. The presentation was about introducing the impacts of plastics and ways to reduce plastics within the community.
Beach Clean-up Events
After the presentation, youth groups and community members participated in beach clean-ups events. Plastics collected were then sorted and weighed with a scale and data was recorded on quantity and type of plastic.
Plastic Shredder Machine
The Ocean Ambassadors donated a Plastic Shredder Machine to VEPA, the first of its kind in Tonga. Plastics are cleaned, sorted and prepared for shredding. The plastics are then fed into the machine which breaks them into flakes. The shredded products will be turned into new products, giving the plastic pollution a value and second life.
Finding solutions for reducing plastic
Reducing, reusing and recycling their household waste is being discussed, as well as providing practical examples of actions they can take to be more environmentally sustainable and manage waste in the outer islands.
The next phase is to bring in an injection machine as well as to continue the drive and effort shown during this intiative, as well as pushing for reductions and regulations for single-use plastics.
A massive thank you to the crew and volunteers from Ocean Ambassadors during the project and malo’aupito to the communities, youth groups and schools for committments to a sustainable future.
Up until the 1990’s, ocean areas within Tonga were declared as open access for all Tongans, in the hopes of allowing everyone equal and fair sharing of its resources.
Over the years this caused a serious downfall in the status and health of the marine habitats, fish and invertebrate resources, that the communities heavily rely on for both subsistence and commercial activities. Coupled with increasing populations, land based pollution, run off, impacts from cyclones and storms, habitat destruction, the increasing threat of climate change and the rapid development of the coastal areas. The marine habitats suffered greatly, in some areas in Vava’u were reduced to less than 10% coral cover.
Marine habitats such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass all play an important ecological benefit to the marine resources offering habitat, food and shelter for the reef fish and invertebrates. Reef builders are the important component, these hard corals and coral building algaes (crustose coraline algae) are the developers of the coral reefs with secondary lesser benefits provided by soft corals, sponges and seagrass. Both live hard coral cover and species diversity of hard corals are needed for a reef to provide multiple ecosystem services.
With weakend coral reefs, the overfishing of important ecological species such as groupers, snappers, emperorfish and other high carnivores and piscivores, as well as roving herbivores such as parrotfish and surgeonfish, can create a more dominant algae shift on the coral reefs. These fish are also the important species for human consumption causing a downward shift in fishing potential.
Many macro algaes alongside turf algae and cyanobacteria are reef competitors, meaning they can take over coral reefs, smothering the ability for the corals to photosynthesise and feed.
For coral reefs to survive, develop and to have larval recruitment of corals, the impacts have to be reduced. Ecosystems and species are heavily intertwined, and each species has its role.
When the ecosystem balance shifts from continuing impacts, dominance of lesser ecologically important species takes over, causing further inbalance in the coral reefs. This not only ecologically affects the coral reefs but also impacts the other services that are provided including food sources for consumption, domestic economic benefits, tourism benefits and providing shelter from waves.
Its not all doom and gloom though, Tonga and Vava’u are making important decisions in the management of their near-shore resources. We will talk more about this in the upcoming weeks as well as other important ocean information!