Reef fate in hands of chiefs and researchers — for now

Thursday, 6 March 2014 10:05 GMT

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Trust and strong relationships between researchers and traditional tribal leaders of small pacific islands allows for quick and effective implementation of science-based strategies that slow the decline of coral reefs, an international conference has heard.

Coral reefs recovered far quicker when scientists worked directly with leaders of local communities — rather than national governments — on changing the damaging land-use practices that pollute coastal waters, said Robert Richmond, a professor of marine biology at the University of Hawaii, United States.

He was speaking at the biennial Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu, United States, last week (23-28 February).

But these strategies can only be a stopgap as the rising sea levels, watertemperatures and acidification — which could spell the end for many reef ecosystems — will need to be addressed by an international climate changeagreement, he said.

For local populations dependent on ever-diminishing coral reefs for survival, conservation laws take too long to devise, and are difficult to enforce and monitor in remote regions, Richmond tells SciDev.Net.

Local chiefs have the ability to quickly change damaging practices but researchers must first work to build trust before their advice will be considered, he adds.

“Many times, the local level is much more efficient than national governance. Working at a local level means communities can act immediately,” Richmond says.

Pacific island examples

Palau, for example, was suffering from decline of reefs and fish stock. Scientists had pinpointed the cause of to an increase in the run-off of sediment caused by the destruction of mangroves along the coastline.

Within two weeks of presenting the data to village chiefs, women’s groups and fishermen, a local moratorium had been imposed on mangrove clearance.

Similar results were achieved on Guam, where a common practice of burning hillside vegetation was halted and on Pohnpei, in Micronesia, where cultivation of a cash root-crop called sakau was relocated to lowlands to avoid forest destruction.

Jim Foley, a marine science educator at the University of Hawaii’s Centre for Microbial Oceanography Research and Education, who specialises in local outreach agrees on the value of targeting local communities.

As “canaries in the coalmine”, he says, local leaders and the populations they represent are the first to feel the impact of environmental disruption and therefore are often open to implementing change.

However, with a history of researchers leaving communities as soon as their work has been completed, a level of wariness and scepticism must be overcome to develop productive relationships, he adds.

This problem is not lost on Richmond, who took years to build productive relationships with chieftains during his research.

While there is no substitute for trained scientists from within indigenous communities who can bridge the cultural divide much more easily, trusted outsiders like himself can act as proxies for other researchers trying to communicate their science, while local capacity continues to develop.

And any longer-term solutions will inevitably need to address the impacts of climate change, too, says Richmond.

Computer modelling studies, he says, suggests that cutting the flow of sediment and nutrients into the oceans through better land management will allow corals to keep recovering until 2050.

After this point, however, the benefits will no longer counteract the growing toll of global warming and ocean acidification on reefs and so an international climate agreement will remain a necessity, says Richmond.