The Department Of Marine & Wildlife Resources

The Department Of Marine & Wildlife Resources

Monday, April 27, 2015

Coral Bleaching in American Samoa

What is Coral Bleaching?

When corals get stressed by abnormal conditions, they will expel the zooxanthellae (an microscopic algae that lives within the cells of the coral which helps the coral to survive). Zooxanthellae provide the coral with many essential nutrients that are then used by the coral to its calcium carbonate skeleton. In return, the coral provides protection for the algae as well as the compounds necessary for photosynthesis. It is impossible for the coral to survive too long without its algae.

Corals are very sensitive animals for them to thrive, the water must be warm, but not too warm, relatively clear, saline, nutrients poor, and be in shallow waters to get plenty of sunlight. Any small changes in these requirements and the corals will likely get stressed. They may tolerate change, but not for too long. 

Once they bleach, the corals are basically starving themselves. If conditions return to normal relatively quickly, corals can regain their zooxanthellae and survive. But the stress occurred also may lead to deceased productivity and growth, and increased likelihood to disease. If the stressful factor remains constant for quite some time it decrease the chance of corals to bounce back and recover.

One of the major findings indicated a mild coral bleaching event in American Samoa. Except for Ta'u and Rose Atoll, around 10% of the coral colonies between 3 and 6 m deep territory- wide, presented signs of bleaching, ranging from pale to stark white due to persistent warm waters. The bleaching seems to mostly impact certain species of fast growing corals. Survey results indicate that the coral bleaching event is mostly happening on the reef flats. Widespread but generally light coverage of partial bleaching has been documented for several coral species to a depth of approximately 40ft from Matu'u near the mouth of Pago Pago Harbor and westward to Leone Bay and Seetaga. It is likely that this pattern can be observed island wide. There are sites that have high bleaching because they have branching  corals that are much more susceptible to stress. Over- all, probably less than 10% of the corals in the reef flats are experiencing bleaching. Monitoring of the bleaching event continues, though there is little that can be done to reverse the process immediately. To reduce downtrend impacts of bleaching events it is recommended to carefully manage other stressors such as land- base sources of pollution, water contamination , over- fishing , and other factors that contributes to coral reef degradation.

Will the corals recover?

Only time will tell, temperature have been gradually falling but we have yet to determine if they have been decreasing quickly enough. It will take months to fully survey and determine the extent of coral bleaching in American Samoa as well as to document incidences of disease and mortality due to this heat - stress. Coral bleaching is a tragedy for our territory whom many depend on the reefs for their food and livelihood. Immediate and intensive management is required to try and help our reefs by recovering coral bleaching to a more healthier reef. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Illegal Fishing - Malakea

It was pouring rain on Saturday so my outdoor plans were forfeited for the day, but while driving through Fagaalu I noticed something interesting and beautiful and disappointing.  I often see the fish vendors' coolers there and sometimes I stop for a fresh fish.  A large and unusual fish put on display caught my eye on this day.  I couldn't resist pulling over and having a closer look.

The fish was lovely and fresh.  It still showed the colors of a live reef fish.  The pouring rain had not yet washed away the mucus that had protected it when it was still living.  I measured the fish with my hands and estimated its size at over one hundred centimeters.  Its vibrant colors, psychedelic patterns, and odd shape were striking.  I lifted it and it certainly weighed over twenty-five pounds. This fish was impressive!

I imagined it chopped into steaks and sliced into fillets, and I imagined that the flavor would be a delicious addition to any feast.  I guessed that such a large fish could feed an entire family several times. Then I imagined the fish swimming, lively on the reef's edge as I have seen them before.  When I saw the fish dead again I was deeply disappointed.  The pouring rain felt like tears of the spirit striking the earth in mourning for the life of this fish.
"Malakea," said the vendor. "...from Tula."  I already knew what the fish was.  Cheilinus undulatus, also known as the humphead wrasse, maori wrasse, or napolian wrasse in English, and lalafi or tagafa in Samoan.  Being a large example, it was a malakea. This fish is historically highly prized for table fare, but has been over fished throughout much of its range.  As a result it is an endangered species and is illegal to catch, kill, or sell.  Possession is punishable by law.

I am a fisherman.  I know the thrill of bringing a large fish to the surface.  I know the reward of eating the fish.  I understand the self-restraint required to swim by this fish without striking it with the spear.  But I would never have killed this fish... not because it's illegal, but because I respect its life and its role on the reef.  I value my role as a steward and protector of creation and life, and I know that Malakea are rare in American Samoan waters and they take many years to grow into adults.  This fish is more valuable to me and to my entire community when it is living and reproducing; enabling its family to grow to abundance.  If we protect this species, it could once again provide a reliable source of protein and income for my family and for yours.

It is illegal and irresponsible to fish, sell, or eat humphead wrasse.  Let the malakea live.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Invasion of the Starfish

The Crown-of-thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci), aka COTS or 'alamea, have been popularly known for killing corals and their poisonous spines. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, large numbers of the starfish were found in the waters of American Samoa and contributed to more than 80% loss of corals in Tututila.  Although considered native, it is normal to see one or two in the village reef.  Therefore, larger numbers ranging in the 10s or 20s would be considered abnormal.  In 1977, an unusually large number of alamea were sighted and led to the removal of 480,000 starfish.  There were still more starfish left on the reef and there was a great impact in fish populations (Buckley, 1986).  It is estimated to take more than 50 years for corals to recover from an outbreak and presently, the coral reefs of American Samoa haven’t completely recovered.

What kind of starfish is this?  It’s a starfish like no other.  No, it doesn’t have five arms and is pretty enough to pick off the reef.  This starfish is can grow up to 21 arms covered with poisonous spines.  They eat coral tissue and can cause serious damage to the coral reefs of our territory.  In 2012, large numbers of ‘alamea were seen on the reef of Tutuila.  Collaborative efforts by the Department of Marine & Wildlife Resources, National Parks of American Samoa, National Marine Sanctuaries of American Samoa and the American Samoa Community College (ASCC) Marine Science 
Program to remove the starfish from the reef from 2012 to 2014 have reached 15,000!  Hundreds and thousands of 'alamea were found mostly on the north side of the island of Tutuila, including some of our Village MPAs:  Fagasa and Fagamalo.  

We, Samoans, have always believed that every living thing has a purpose - E tofu meaola ma lona aoga.  Unfortunately, there haven't been any benefits found through research and experience.  Like mentioned before, their spines are poisonous!  

If you ever get stung by a Crown-of-thorns starfish, try to squeeze out the poison and spine from the would using tweezers.  Then soak the wound in hot water (hot enough to endured for a long period) for more than an hour so the venom can decompose.  Be advised, do NOT cover the wound with a band-aid, tape or dressing.  If you experience difficulty breathing or numbness or if the pain and swelling continues, see a doctor as soon as possible.  Although there is a Samoan proverb:  fofō le 'alamea le 'alamea.  This means you can use the same poisonous starfish to treat the poison.  You carefully turn the 'alamea upside down and place your wound on its tube feet and it will suck out the poison.  I suppose you can say, this is ONE good deed by the starfish. 

The removal of the starfish is still ongoing since the sightings in 2012.  Initially, the removal of the starfish are by the use of spears.  They were collected into wired bins and brought to shore to be measured and killed by having them sundried.  These starfish were at one time, given to farmers to be used as fertilizers on their plantations.  It was a strenuous job to collect and spread them to be killed.  This is no longer practiced since another method has been introduced.  Now, they are being injected by Ox bile, which is a more effective method that has been practiced on the corals of the Great Barrier Reef.  

Efforts in removing this starfish is still ongoing.  Greatest appreciation and gratitude to our collaborative partners in the efforts to eradicate the starfish from our territorial waters. If you see this starfish in your village reef area, contact us at (684) 633-4456.  We will send a team to evaluate the damage and remove as much starfish from your area.