Vava’u oceans focus of marine expedition

NUKU’ALOFA-June 29: 11.03am (Environment News): Scientists from the the Vava’u Environmental Protection Association, Ministry of Fisheries, Ministry of MEIDECC, Waitt Institute and Scripps Institute of Oceanography conducted an expedition to investigate ocean health and the status of marine resources in  Ha’apai and Vava’u earlier this month.

Environment Officer Mr Penikoni Alea’amotu’a during the marine expedition in Vava’u earlier this month. Photo: SUPPLIED

The Vava’u Ocean Initiative was only launched in April this year.

With the Tongan Government, Waitt Institute and Vava’u Environmental Protection Association (VEPA), this Initiative focuses on three key objectives:

expanding and supporting implementation of Special Management Areas,

supporting the development of a national marine spatial plan that leads to healthy oceans and communities,

and contributing to marine scientific research to further enhance these national programs.

VEPA Director Karen Stone said “the Vava’u Ocean Initiative is designed to support the health and wellbeing of Tonga’s oceans and communities with a special focus on Vava’u”.

Ms Stone led a scientific expedition team from May 29 to June 9 aboard the research vessel M/Y Plan b

A team of 10 international and national researchers, including Ministry of Fisheries and MEIDECC personnel, conducted in-the-water surveys on scuba.

The expedition includes outer islands of Ha’apai and Vava’u.

Part of the coral reefs in Vava’u that was included in the marine expedition. Photo: SUPPLIED

Through the research, the team will provide more information about coral health, diversity and abundance of marine fishes, and abundance of key invertebrates such as sea cucumbers, octopus, giant clams and many other species. The team will share their data with both the Government of Tonga and communities to help inform decision-making for ocean management.

Mr Penikoni Aleamotua, Marine Conservation Officer from the Department if Environment, noted that “some reefs are in good shape.  However, we see noticeable decline in some areas”.

Climate change impacts, overfishing, and land-based pollution are all factors that can damage coral reef ecosystems and cause the decline of important community resources.

While the current expedition and past research indicates human impact to reef ecosystems, the researchers have noted that many of the outer islands have healthy coral reefs. 

However, Ms. Stone cautions “while key fish species are present on the reefs, large fish, including key predators, are conspicuously absent”.

Large fish have the greatest reproductive potential and therefore the best chance of replenishing depleted fish resources. 

The expedition celebrated World Oceans Day on June 8 by hosting a dinner for the Governor of Vava’u, Lord Fulivai, his guests, and the science team aboard the ship. 

Waitt Institute Director, Dr. Kathryn Mengerink, pointed out that “His Lordship’s support for the Vava’u Ocean Initiative has been a key factor in our determination to move forward with the project. That and the fact that Vava’u is a very special place”. 

Giant clams were also found during the marine expedition in Vava’u. Photo: SUPPLIED

Groups of fish were also monitored during the marine expedition in Vava’u. Photo: SUPPLIED

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