Island nations and partner U.S. agencies have made some progress in protecting their coral reefs in recent years but they are faced with yet another challenge: how to minimize or prevent a massive military buildup from impacting the marine ecosystems not only of Guam, but also that of the CNMI, Palau, American Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, and other islands.
This was among the key issues in yesterday's opening of the two-day 2010 U.S. Coral Reef Task Force Meeting at the Saipan World Resort in Susupe.
The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force is one of the foremost policy groups guiding national and international coral reef conservation.
Task Force co-chairs Eileen Sobeck of the Department of the Interior and Andrew Winer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration joined representatives of federal agencies and governors of U.S. territories and affiliate members at the meeting, which showcased coral reef conservation work, watershed restoration projects, and climate change adaptation strategies, among other things.
Guam Gov. Felix P. Camacho said the military buildup “is the largest threat to coral reefs on this island.”
The military buildup involves the relocation of some 8,600 U.S. Marines and their 9,000 dependents from Okinawa, Japan, to Guam.
It also involves the construction of facilities and infrastructure to support training and operations on Guam and Tinian for the relocated Marines.
“I stress that our ability to manage our resources and our infrastructure during the military buildup and beyond will affect our island and our families for generations to come. The efforts of local natural resource managers will be wasted, if the military buildup is not handled in a manner that respects the people of Guahan [Guam] and the natural resources we rely on-for sustenance, for economic viability, for our culture, and for our way of life,” Camacho said.
One of three major projects related to the military buildup in Guam is a deep-draft wharf for transiting aircraft carriers.
The U.S. Navy earlier chose the Polaris Point in Guam's Apra Harbor as its preferred site for a carrier berth.
This would require some extensive dredging of sand and coral to accommodate the 1,325-foot wharf, designed for the larger Nimitz-class carriers, a “turning basin” in the harbor, and a widened ship channel.
Camacho, in his remarks, asked the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force to help Guam come up with the best possible mitigation strategies for its coral reefs during this time of immense change and growth in the island.
“The members have the ability to direct resources to this important and urgent task, and techniques and strategies developed for Guahan could have future uses in other locations facing major development as well,” he said.
Capt. Peter S. Lynch, commanding officer of the U.S. Naval Facilities Engineering Command, said yesterday that the Record of Decision on the Final Environmental Impact Statement related to the buildup will not reflect a final decision on the location for a carrier berth because there's no consensus yet about the location.
Lynch, one of the presenters at the task force meeting, said the Department of Defense will defer a decision until after getting additional resource data.
He said DOD has identified funding to conduct additional studies that will take place in fiscal year 2011. Lynch said a decision will be based on data and studies that everybody agree on.
But Lynch pointed out that coral reefs are impacted by a lot of things, including runoff from a construction site or wastewater treatment that's not properly treated and could create algae plumes.
“There are the things we need to do regardless of whether we put the carrier here or there,” he added.
The Record of Decision on the Guam and CNMI Final EIS, which Lynch said could only be about 160 pages, will be released on Sept. 20, instead of the earlier schedule of Sept. 10.
The Navy said the delay is necessary to ensure that all comments received on the Final EIS are fully considered in the Record of Decision. In addition, the consultation processes under the National Historic Preservation Act and Endangered Species Act are still ongoing.
Just like Guam, other islands look to economic benefits of increased military presence in the region but are at the same time bracing for its impact on the environment, including their coral reefs, which help sustain their economy and way of life.
Palau House of Delegates Speaker Noah Idechong said Palau expects to have increased number of soon-to-be Guam-based military personnel and their dependents visiting the island nation for diving and snorkeling, but he said “the downside is the impact on coral reefs.”
“It's a challenge for us,” he told Saipan Tribune in an interview during a break at the meeting.
Idechong said Palau has been investing in educational campaign on protecting coral reefs.
Palau also started collecting in November 2009 a so-called “green fee” from visitors, to be used for preserving protected areas.
The CNMI is also looking forward to increased military training on Tinian, as well as increased visits from military personnel and dependents for rest and recreation.
American Samoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono said preparing for and mitigating climate change is the greatest global challenge facing the world today.
He said in American Samoa alone, the challenge is to protect resilient corals that are most likely to survive in the face of climate change.
Tulafono has also established a Climate Change Executive Order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a Climate Change Local Action Strategy that integrated the climate change goals of the national Coral Reef Conservation Program with the local level.
'We're denied FEMA aid'
A tsunami hit the Samoan archipelago in September last year, killing people, destroying properties, displacing residents, and impacted the reefs.
“What some of you may not know is that our coral reefs suffered a second blow due to inadequate relief. Following the tsunami, large amounts of debris littered our reefs. Removal of the larger debris items is beyond the capacity of the American Samoan government, both in the expertise and the limited capacity of our landfills,” Tulafono said.
He said American Samoa repeatedly asked FEMA to directly assist NOAA by obtaining supplemental funding to remove the debris by activating Emergency Support Functions of the National Response Framework.
“However, we have been consistently denied on multiple accounts due to the loose interpretation of the ESFs by FEMA. Ladies and gentlemen, let me be frank. While it may sound like that this is about our last disaster and our issues with FEMA, they are not. This is not just about American Samoa. Anyone of our jurisdiction can experience a disaster such as our tsunami of 2009, and suffer the same consequences as us,” he said.
Tulafono asked the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force two things.
The first is the need to provide a formal U.S. position that coral reef health is indeed a public health issue for the people of American Samoa and the other insular jurisdictions.
“This would enable the Stafford Act to provide FEMA funding for coral reef restoration activities to address damage caused by natural disasters,” he said.
The second is the FEMA response requirement that differs for jurisdictions outside of the continental U.S., requiring a natural disaster declaration while there is an automatic response initiation for natural disasters occurring within the continental U.S.
“In conclusion, I am confident about the future of the work of this task force. And together, we can continue to enhance conservation strategies and limit threats to coral reef ecosystems, as already demonstrated by the USCRTF and Coral Reef Conservation Program,” he added.
CNMI Gov. Benigno R. Fitial said while the region has made great strides in the past decade, there continues to be considerable challenges ahead, particularly in coral reef protection efforts and the impact of climate change.
“Today, we will place considerable attention on the Micronesia Challenge-a commitment by the governments of the CNMI, Guam, FSM, RMI and Palau-to address the very issues of coral reefs and climate change,” he said.
The Micronesia Challenge calls for the protection of 30-percent of the islands' marine resources and 20-percent of terrestrial resources by the year 2020.
“The actions we take now to protect, restore and sustain our coral reef ecosystems will undoubtedly play a significant role in shaping the future of our Micronesian region, both economically and culturally. While it is clearly impossible for us to stop the forces of nature, we must remain firm in our commitment to be adequately prepared for what is to come long before it arrives. At the end of the day, it is people who make the difference,” he added.
Vangie Lujan, chair of the U.S. All Islands Coral Reef Committee, said island territories now have more access to federal agency assistance when it comes to coral reef protection.