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  • By Bea Cabrera

Mitigating the threats to coral reefs

Saipan— Coral reefs in the Northern Mariana Islands have taken a hit. Bleaching, global warming and anthropogenic stressors such as debris in the ocean are the biggest contributors to the degradation of corals in the CNMI.

“We have been monitoring the challenges that our coral reefs experience, what they are going through and we have come up with priorities and plans for the next 10 years,” said David Benavente, a marine biologist who leads the marine monitoring program under the CNMI Coastal Resources Management and Division Environmental Quality.

The state of the CNMI’s coral reefs is among the items discussed by the CNMI Environment and Natural Resources Task Force during a forum held last month by the CNMI Office of Planning and Development, where shared comprehensive sustainable plans for the CNMI’s ecological system.

The Coral Restoration and Resiliency Planning Opportunities in the CNMI is currently in place.

“The past decade we have had several large bleaching events,” Benavente said. “The first that was documented was in 2013, 2014 and there was another bleaching event and by 2017.”

In 2019, another large bleaching event killed about 90 percent of corals within the Saipan lagoon. “Due to global climate changes, we see a larger number of corals degraded in the CNMI,” Benavente said.

From 2008 to 2019, studies show that coral bleaching has increased in Saipan, Tinian and Rota. In the state of the reef report card, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “basically states that the CNMI as a whole is doing ‘okay’. But most of the coral reefs are dead,” Benavente said.

The report was based on data collected from the National Coral Reef Ecological monitoring program based in Hawaii, which monitors the ecosystems in the CNMI’s 14 islands and throughout the Pacific.

“Most of the reefs are dealing with climate changes and most islands except for the Northern Islands are dealing with fisheries impact. The southern islands- Saipan, Tinian and Rota are more affected than the northern islands because of human population. The greater the amount of human population, the greater the amount of stress for the ecosystem,” Benavente said.

Goals have been set to save and sustain the CNMI’s coral reefs for the next 10 years.

“The first would be to improve the conditions of NMI’s reef ecosystems by reducing the amount of sediment, nutrients and other land-based sources of pollution in CNMI watershed,” Benavente said.

“Second, building an ecosystem based on fishery management approach that sustains fishery resources for cultural recreational and commercial pursuits to have healthy, resilient coral reef ecosystems better adapted to the effects of climate change, and lastly, have an improved coral reef ecosystem, health and accelerated recovery through restoration efforts.

“By 2027, to develop and implement adaptive, resilience-based management strategies and by 2029, CNMI will have an improved monitoring program that assesses the long- and short-term impacts of climate change,” he added.

Trey Dunn, a biologist at the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, said his office is coming up with projects that are related to Benavente’s goals, such as the Saipan Western Lagoon Coral Reef Fisheries Ecosystem Management Plan.

“Basically, we are kind of phasing out some of our marine protective work a little bit and focus on a broader area of the whole western lagoon and try to come up with a management plan so that coral ecosystem date or information we get there will help other agencies in the CNMI,” Dunn said.

“We can incorporate a lot of things from the DFW, Bureau of Environmental Coastal Quality, different agencies that are collecting data in that area and that’s why we are making a big management plan— to put all of these things into perspective in regards to fisheries as we are going to use a lot of different information,” he added.

Dunn said this management plan is “starting up pretty soon, using some of our marine protected areas resources and moving that over to come up with a plan to see a better picture of the lagoon and fisheries.”

Part of the plan is to hire a coral reef ecologist that will help us manage this whole plan, he said.

“The first year is about acquiring all the information. We are currently applying for funding for the next two years of it. In the second year, we will try to get more input for the plan developed from the first year,” Dunn said.

The objective is to fill any information gap that might have been missed during the first year, and then collate all data into a plan that will be finalized in year two. “The third year is about the outreach of the plan and beginning its implementation,” Dunn said.

Saipan has diverse marine habitats that host 256 identified species of coral. Marine biologists say increasing coral cover will add more habitat for reef fish, leading to more sustainable fisheries.

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