About Islands: September 2011 Archives

Dealing with Drought: Mitiaro Island

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One of the things we've learned at Seacology is that all islands, however similar they may seem, each face a unique set of challenges. Some islands in the South Pacific, for instance, get all the rain they can handle. But in Mitiaro, a 12-square-mile island in the north-eastern end of the Cook Islands, they can't get enough.

Mitiaro-cave1.JPG
During Mitiaro's dry season (typically from June to November) the island's 200 residents must rely on reserves they store in water tanks. When they suffer droughts -- as is the case right now -- they may have to resort to dipping into the island's natural resevoirs, the pristine fresh-water pools found in remote caves.

But even that isn't so simple, since just getting to the pools can be challenging and dangerous. One cave requires that you climb down a tree and then navigate steep, slippery rocks before you reach the water.

Our project in Mitiaro addressed both these issues. In exchange for the conservation of 3,000 acres of forest (roughly a third of the island!) we funded the installation of a safe pathway with handrails to the cave pools, plus the renovation of eight 10,000 gallon water tanks (pictured below).
Seacology funded refurbished water tank Mitiaro water tank.jpg 
 







This Times article about Haiti's dying reefs I think illustrates an important point about marine conservation efforts: it's not necessarily a case of environmentalism-vs-industry. You need to protect reef habitats in order to prevent the kind of "Tragedy of the Commons" scenario we're seeing unfolding in Haiti, where over-fishing continues even when it's obvious it's bad for everyone in the long run.
Haiti_reefs.jpg
In Haiti 54,000 fishermen rely on the ocean for their livelihood... [and in] recent decades, as their usual catches of Nassau groupers and snappers have dwindled and disappeared, many of them have subsisted by netting and spearing small reef fish that keep coral clean of algae. Now those too are almost gone, and the algae have taken over....

Pierre Guy LaFontant, Haiti's director general of fisheries, acknowledged that overfishing was a problem and said that officials were receptive to the idea of establishing protected waters. But if the government cannot enforce its existing fishing regulations, can fishermen be persuaded to abide by an invisible line in the water?

But of course it's not as simple as just protecting and waiting, since these Haitian fishermen have basic short-term needs that can't easily be put on hold.

Henry Hilaire, who has fished for 36 years, gathered nets from a sailboat with several other Haitians in waters that Reef Check hopes will eventually be protected.... Mr. Hilaire pulled two small fish, each about five inches long, from his basket. "It's really too young to keep," he said, but "circumstances are such that if we didn't keep them, we'd go hungry."....

They're desperate, trying to survive, so how do you tell them not to fish here?" asked Romain Louis, 37, a literature teacher hoping to become part of the eco-diver team.

Mr. Louis suggested that the fishermen would need an incentive... "Maybe, if these fishermen got a trade-off, they'd stop fishing on overfished reefs."

The whole article is worth a read... As bad as things are for Haiti's coral reefs, it's good to know that conservation efforts are beginning.