Sunday, May 30, 2010

Coral Project Take ONE

PHOTO: One of the clam circles with the students placing corals within and around the circle.

The Matamaka Coral Gardens have officially started! We have had several talks about this trial project for awhile now, but we have stopped talking about it and just did it. Matamaka GPS has been blessed with a location that is surrounded by water on three sides. The views are amazing and the sunsets are beautiful, but the truth is hidden underneath the water. The corals around Matamaka have mostly been damaged due to years of overfishing. As a result, we are attempting to regenerate and protect the corals surrounding the school.

We have placed giant clam shells in various shapes within the open gaps of the existing corals in our protected zone. The shells were generously donated from various families of Matamaka who wanted to help contribute to our project. As a result, the entire project cost ZERO dollars, but the benefits will be unimaginable. The students, staff, and members of Matamaka gathered the clam shells one afternoon and made a stock pile in our school. During high tide the next day, we pushed all the clams onto the water. Later that same afternoon, we placed all the clams in their “designated” areas. We started where the corals are the most abundant. Our plan is to strengthen the existing corals and expand towards the “dead” zones.

PHOTO: The students collecting the giant clam shells.

The kids were all very helpful with placing the clams carefully on the sea floor. My co-teacher Ma’asi and I coordinated the design of the clams. Next, we searched for little baby corals from the area and strategically placed them within and around the clam circles. We had to explain to the children to not just pull out any corals they find. At first they were so proud of collecting random corals and then I had to explain to them to NOT destroy the corals and to be very careful around them. Tongan children have all grown up living from the sea, so educating them all to not walk on the corals has been a headache.

PHOTO: Students and Ma’asi strategically placing the clams within the no-fish zone and children walking with the clams to the school.

At the time of writing, we have completed three areas of clam circles. In addition to the preservation of corals, we want to protect all living things within the protection zone. Since sea cucumber season has just started here in Tonga (which is a whole other environmental problem on its own) we tried to gather as much sea cucumbers from outside the protection zone and placed them with the protected area. The purpose is guarantee that they do not get collected from people who harvest them. Sea cucumbers are essential for healthy reefs as they keep reefs clean. Recently, Pacific Island nations have been overfishing sea cucumbers for exports to China who pay big bucks for them. One night of sea cucumber fishing can be worth up to $2000 pa’anga! As a result, we need to protect as many sea cucumbers to ensure the success of our coral gardens.

The Matamaka Coral gardens have been fully supported by important figures of Matamaka. We have held workshops to members of the community about the importance of coral reefs and the benefits of ECO-TOURISM. I am pushing for an initiative to make Matamaka one of the first eco-tourism projects on the outer-island villages of Vava’u. There are so many benefits if eco-tourism becomes successful in the outer-islands. The town officer has announced that the area surrounding the school and another reef just outside of Matamaka to become a no fish zone. This is a HUGE progress in our attempt to preserve and regenerate the damaged corals. My goal before my Peace Corps service ends is to register the protected area with the Ministry of Fisheries of Tonga and turn it into an official marine reserve.

PHOTO: Matamaka GPS Coral Garden. Pretty eh?

As tourist season kicks off here in Tonga, we hope to attract palangis and Tongans to help support our conservation movement so that other villages may consider starting similar projects. There is a dire need to preserve the fragile eco-systems of Tonga and throughout the South Pacific. The South Pacific is one of the last healthy oceans in the world. As a result of overfishing and limited environmental conservation, these islands of paradise may one day disappear. The time to act is now. I am proud Matamaka has taken some initiative. Only time will tell if our conservation efforts will regenerate the corals and the return of more fish.

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