Wednesday, 25 March 2009 9:39 AM

The Coral Reef: The Year that was our Pacific focus for 2008

Press Release - Coral reefs are dying living organisms.

In 2008, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) embarked on a Pacific-wide campaign to mobilise the Pacific community to actively save our reefs.

The Pacific Ocean is home to over 75 percent of the world's reefs now under threat. From 1968 to 2004, approximately 600 square miles of coral reef have disappeared each year. Since 1995 the rate of disappearance has doubled.

More than 80 percent of Pacific islanders live in or near coastal areas and draw from the coral reef for their livelihood. The coral reef supports approximately 25 percent of all marine life, including over 4,000 species of fish, providing valuable spawning, nursery, refuge and feeding areas for large varieties of organisms. Coral Reefs also play vital roles as natural breakwaters, minimising wave impacts during storms and cyclones. Hence the motto for the Year: "Strong reefs, strong islands."

It was the second Pacific Year of the Reef. The first took place a decade earlier in 1997 and focused on raising awareness about the perils of our dying coral reefs. Some 10 years on, in 2008, SPREP worked to mobilise people to do something about the problem. The time for talking had come and gone now there is a pressing need for action.

SPREP's Coral Reef Management Officer, Caroline Vieux, led the campaign aimed at all of the Pacific islands, which made 2008 a very busy year for her. Although the year's focus has come and gone, Vieux says the time for action is not over - the work has only begun.

"We don't want to protect just coral reefs - we need to encourage people to protect the environment in general. If you take care of land-based pollution it will have a positive affect on the coral reef. It is more general than just focusing on the environment, it's also the way we consume things, which have an effect on the environment. Its not over for us."

The Coral Reef Initiative in the Pacific Programme (CRISP) supported the Pacific Year of the Reef 2008 and allowed for activities under the Coral Reef Initiative to be funded and promoted as part of the special year.

Several of the major projects for 2008 included a Governance project on Vanuatu, which encouraged the sharing of data and stronger collaboration of information between government departments. This led to a discussion on the creation of a transversal department so that Ministries like Fisheries, Forestry, Environment and Water would work together to share information.

Another CRISP programme in 2008 was the release of the Socio Economic Monitoring Pasifika Guidelines, followed by training of 17 marine conservationists from five Pacific islands countries in the Republic of the Marshall Islands on how to use these guidelines.

"We talk about monitoring fish, invertebrate and corals in Marine Protected Areas (MPA) to see if the Coral Reef is strengthened, but socio economic monitoring is as important to see if people are getting the benefits from these MPA's. This is a significant aspect because it's no good if you have plenty of fish but people who are starving. That isn't a successful MPA. We are focusing on both the biological and socio economic so that both nature and humans benefit from MPA's."

In 2008, Pacific school children were given the opportunity to actively work on projects that will help strengthen the coral reef. ChallengeCoralReef, a regional competition designed for those aged between 13 - 18, encouraged schools to submit action plans on how they would work to conserve the coral reef. SPREP received 20 action plans, of which 11 were funded under the Pacific Year of the Reef.

A wide range of activities were submitted, some included the creation of underwater paths, a crown-of-thorns starfish removal project and a project to motivate the better disposal of waste, including the design of sign boards and recycling bins.

"I was pleased because some people might think the waste project is not directly related and not important to coral reefs but it is important because we need to start fighting the pollution on the land as that eventually affects the coral reef."

Of the 11 submitted action plans, the Saint Joseph Catholic Secondary School - Tenaru from the Solomon Islands was declared the overall winner of ChallengeCoralReef. The school devised a programme of three community education visits, shore clean ups, coral planting and a monitoring visit over five months to help rehabilitate and restore Visale Reef on Guadalcanal Island.

A teacher and student at the International Youth Coastal Conference in Townville, Australia announced the school results and presented prizes to the winners.

"For me the enthusiasm of the schools alone helped make this 2008 Pacific Year of the Reef a success. We put money and effort into our young generation and were really happy and pleased with the action plans they submitted. This was a major highlight for us, having our younger generation work to save the Coral Reef. It was the work and stronger awareness by our young Pacific islanders which really helped make the campaign successful."

Vieux would like to acknowledge and thank the Coral Reef Initiative in the Pacific Programme (CRISP), Pacific islands countries, communities, media organisations, schools and people that actively took part in the 2008 Pacific Year of the Reef. Strong reefs bring about strong islands, but she appreciates that strong partnerships also play an important role in making this happen.