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Our Oceania | Coral reef debris

YUTU didn’t just leave mountains of debris on Saipan and Tinian; it also blew rubble and wreckage into the islands’ surrounding waters.

“We just found a whole container in the water,” said David Benavente of the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality or BECQ. 

Benavente said the 20-foot container was found near the cliff line at Coral Ocean Point. He added that ever since Yutu made landfall, his team of divers have found many unusual objects on and around Saipan’s coral reefs, including street signs, roofs, and household goods.

“At one beach, there was a freezer that washed up,” he said. “Also on the back side of the island, we’re finding areas or pockets where big trees…got onto the reef and they’re stuck in the channels.”

Underwater debris can cause further damage to the CNMI’s already-threatened coral ecosystems, which support biodiversity, provide a foundation for the local fishing and tourism industries, and act as a protective wall against storm surge.

“We’re starting to survey the extent of the damage,” Benavente said. “We want to see what the difference is between before and after the storm and see if there was a big change in reef structure and coral cover.”

Fortunately, so far it looks like Yutu didn’t directly cause much damage to the reefs. Benavente said this was likely because Typhoon Mangkhut already destroyed the weaker coral earlier in the season. 

“I think what Mangkhut did was it broke off all of the loose pieces already,” he said. “Everything that’s in there now is the most resilient and strongest stuff in the water.” 

Still, BECQ hopes to identify and collect underwater debris before it causes further damage to the reefs. They’re also keeping detailed records of their findings.

“It gives us a basis of what Yutu did to the marine resources and we’re going to use that to request money from FEMA,” he said. “So FEMA can fund us to do research and try to understand how these storms are affecting the reefs and the resources, and how that ultimately affects the human populations that live on the coast.”

CNMI residents can assist in the process through reporting underwater damage on an app created by the NOAA field office in partnership with CNMI’s Coastal Zone Management Program.

“Members of the community can provide anecdotal information and photos of impacts they’ve seen,” explained Robbie Greene, NOAA coral reef conservation liaison for the Northern Mariana Islands.

“NOAA, FEMA, and several other local and federal partners are currently in a planning phase of an island-wide (Saipan and Tinian) coral reef impact assessment and ‘triage’,” he said. “This is an effort to quantify the damages to CNMI reefs from Typhoon Yutu, and prioritize and implement coral restoration in the areas that were hardest hit.” 

“This will likely involve dedicated dive teams re-attaching live corals, and possibly removing debris that can cause further damage as it scrapes along the reef.”

Greene hopes that by the time the CNMI has developed its triage team and implementation plan in 2019, they can prioritize restoration and reef-building activities using reports from their app.

“The key here is sharing the survey with as many people in the CNMI as possible,” he said. “This means dive operators and tour companies, recreational swimmers and snorkelers, the local fishing community, and just about any other group that spends time in and/or underwater.”

Greene added that the coral reefs act as the CNMI’s “coastal protector” and that “this effort to perform coral triage and restoration is driven largely by FEMA’s recognition of that ecosystem service.”

“One good thing about this storm was the [public’s] realization that the reefs play a role in blocking wave damage — more people realize that the reefs play a role in how we’re protected from typhoon storm surge,” Benavente said. “So people are more receptive to restoration projects.” 

Survey: https://arcg.is/eGuDb

Web Map/App: http://arcg.is/8Gz1C 

Source: Marianas Variety : http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/green-tips/109648-our-oceania-coral-reef-debris

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