Why Pacific islands should take on ocean monitoring

The island of Rarotonga monitors algae that produce toxins and pose a public health risk Copyright: Flickr/ NOAA Photo Library

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Pacific islands must build capacity for their own environmental monitoring to tackle both local and global problems, says Ben Ponia.

Small island developing states are viewed as the early-warning canary for global environmental change. But though they share global problems, many have an eye for economic growth and have become industrialised nations facing their own suite of home-grown problems.

Do these islands still have the pristine environments that make them suitable outposts for global monitoring? Or have they become hotspots of environmental change in their own right?

The reality is probably somewhere in between, meaning that small states must ensure that monitoring programmes inform policies on local concerns while also warning of global changes.

So who should take responsibility for monitoring change? Too often, local governments have left this up to the global community, and have failed to make the necessary commitments to ensure that local monitoring capacity complements their development aspirations.

Progress through crisis

In my role in the Cook Islands government I have witnessed the changing monitoring priorities over the years and the lessons we have learned.

In the early 1990s, the priority was to monitor the health of marine ecosystems on and around the capital island Rarotonga, where the effects of coral bleaching, sedimentation and pollution were clear. But a lack of political will and resources meant that the coastal developments causing these problems were rarely addressed.

By the late 1990s, the concern had shifted to monitoring pearl aquaculture on Manihiki Atoll. Farming there went unchecked and reached unsustainable levels — and despite monitoring warnings, eventually led to the collapse of production because of an oyster disease. NZD$100 million was lost in gross revenue, and fifty per cent of the population abandoned the atoll.

Local government staff did not have the scientific training needed to manage the crisis, and a lack of capacity to maintain the equipment meant that the databanks of water-monitoring probes were full, leaving the disease outbreak unrecorded.

The government’s response was to invest more heavily in an automated monitoring programme, and to instigate better farming practices through a lagoon management plan.

In Rarotonga, monitoring efforts now focus not only on marine ecosystem health, but also public health concerns such as ciguatera fish poisoning, noxious algal blooms and high concentrations of faecal bacteria in the water. Muri lagoon, a popular beachfront tourism destination, has become a prime monitoring site.

Capacity as well as tools

Fortunately, lessons have been learned. The government understands the need to heed the warnings from monitoring programmes, and monitoring results are being adopted proactively rather than reactively.

For example, the Ministry of Marine Resources and the Ministry of Health are assessing how illnesses such as diarrhoea, skin irritation and respiratory problems might be linked with the levels of enterococci bacteria in the water. These assessments will help the government to adopt beach monitoring and public notification standards.

Modern technology such as video transects (surveys performed with a video camera) of coral cover and automated water quality-monitoring buoys have significantly increased the efficiency of our monitoring programmes, as well as providing a continuous stream of in-situ information.

But technological tools should be used to shape decisions, rather than being treated as the solution. These tools operate only as well as their operators — a truth that in the past was overlooked, with the onus put on the tools rather than their handlers.

This brings us back to the issue of developing local scientific capacity. The support provided by the global community in terms of human resources and equipment is commendable, and has undoubtedly expanded the pool of locally based researchers.

However, the growth of priority areas for research is outpacing local resources. International and nongovernmental organisations working in the Pacific need to ensure that local researchers are not spread too thinly.

And these organisations need to know when to switch their focus to emerging priorities. One obvious priority is to invest more in training local researchers to reduce the reliance on scientists coming from other parts of the world.

Taking responsibility

Small developing island states are slowly building the confidence to merge their monitoring programmes and regulatory powers in order to protect their environments, populations and economies.

They are beginning to share lessons via Internet platforms and international projects, and they are ready to participate in global monitoring programmes as both a service provider and user.

But this is not a process that can be completed overnight. It requires sustained investment.

Instead of pooling aid-funded projects together, Pacific governments must make a long-term commitment to maintaining a pool of local scientists and programmes, well-equipped and backed by the proper resources.

Small island states must begin to see the problems in their own front yards as inherently linked to local developments, not simply the responsibility of the global community. The more complex the issues they face, the greater likelihood that they are part of the problem.  

The benefit of investing in monitoring is unquestionable — and it gives small states a tool with which to assert authority over their own agendas for development.

Ben Ponia is the secretary for the Cook Islands Ministry of Marine Resources and is based on Rarotonga.

This article is part of a Spotlight on Ocean science for sustainable development.