French Polynesia's reefs threatened

Issue 

The 130 islands of French Polynesia extend over 2.5 million square kilometres of ocean, and include coral reef systems in various states of health. There is little scientific information available on many of these reefs, but it's obvious that reefs are being degraded around the main population centres of Papeete and Moorea. The number of tourists arriving is growing, as are resort developments. This growth may bring some economic benefits, but it will affect reef systems if there is not proper planning. Sewage from resorts is just one of a long list of human impacts on coral reefs. Natural impacts, such as climatic events, make the reefs even more vulnerable to human activity, according to PAT HUTCHINGS, a principal research scientist with the Australian Museum. Hutchings has a long involvement with coral reef management in Australia and the South Pacific. She has just edited an edition of the international publication The Marine Pollution Bulletin which focuses on the condition and future of Pacific reefs. In this interview with CAROLYN COURT, she describes some of the major threats to French Polynesian reefs.

Hutchings: Many of the reefs in the area have been affected in the past decade by natural events, which regularly impact reefs. We've had a series of El Ni¤o events — some very low tides with parts of the reef flats being exposed to the air during the middle of the day, causing widespread coral death. We've also had crown-of-thorns starfish coming through.

Normally, cyclones are measured in French Polynesia in terms of centuries, but we had five cyclones between 1982 and '83 that did a lot of damage. Many reefs are still recovering from those natural disturbances but the rate of recovery is very slow because the reefs are fairly isolated from each other. The only sources of recovery for reefs are new recruits — new pelagic larvae coming from nearby reefs.

Some of those reefs, in addition to the natural catastrophes, have also been stressed by human effects. We have a lack of data. Of the 130 islands, there are publications on only about 30. So that while we can say that the reefs around the centres of population have been impacted, we know far less about many of the other reefs. We suspect that quite a few of the reefs have been severely impacted; others may not have been so severely impacted by humans.

What are the major human impacts affecting reefs?

Part of it is just the concentration of people in towns or villages where you have no sewage treatment works whatsoever either for domestic sewage, or for any of the discharges of light industry. For instance in the town of Papeete, where something like 50% or more of the population of French Polynesia live, the sewage is just discharged into the lagoon.

We've also got, in many places, uncontrolled clearing of land adjacent to the coastal areas. In some cases it's just the low-lying area adjacent to the lagoon, but in other areas they are attempting to clear halfway up a steep cliff. You can see when it rains, most of the topsoil just gets washed out into the lagoon and smothers the reefs. This is happening in places like Moorea where you can see, when you dive on those reefs, that the live coral has been totally smothered with a fine layer of sediment. Corals just cannot cope with that, and they die.

We've also got problems throughout French Polynesia with piggeries. The waste from those piggeries goes straight out onto the reef. And finally, on many of the atolls especially, the only source of sand and gravel for building is dredging lagoonal sediments.

As someone who has been studying the reefs for quite a few years, how do you see the future?

I am concerned that there seems to be relatively little implementation even of the existing legislation. For instance, there are something like 30 species on the reefs which are protected, such as turtles and the turbo-shell, but they're not really being enforced very well.

They really have got a very poor development of reserves. There are only three areas that are provided with any sort of protection, and these areas don't have plans of management. They are talking about developing a coastal zone policy for coastal management throughout French Polynesia, but I don't see any action being taken to even develop it, let alone implement it.

Who has the power to do something about this? Is it the French government or the territorial government?

Back in 1984, when French Polynesia gained limited local [autonomy], the territorial government became responsible for the protection of the environment. In 1985 the Department of the Environment was established. Now, they have certainly implemented a monitoring program of water quality around Papeete, but I don't see them as having done much more.

Part of it is just the logistic problem of so many reefs covering such a vast area. And certainly a lot of the French scientists who've been going to French Polynesia — and I'd have to rate myself in amongst those — seem to be more interested in asking some more fundamental questions on reefs, on how they function, rather than being concerned about how can we collect data that's useful for long-term management.
[This interview — here slightly abridged — was first broadcast on Radio Australia's One World program, produced by Carolyn Court.]

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