Overseeing economic growth and taking care of the environment should not be seen as a contradiction. In fact, economic and environmental sustainability are linked in many ways and this was the message of the “Comprehensive Sustainable Development Plan” online forum organized by CNMI Office of Planning and Development that was held for three days last week.
After tackling development and revitalization of the CNMI tourism industry, environmental topics were also highlighted on the final day of the forum last Friday, where the plight of CNMI’s intangible assess—its coral reefs and pristine natural resources—and plans to forward this stewardship for the long haul were discussed.
According to David Benavente, lead marine biologist of the marine monitoring program of the CNMI Coastal Resources Management and Division of Environmental Quality, they have been working on “Coral Restoration and Resiliency Planning Opportunities” 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,” he said.
In the past decade, the CNMI has seen several large bleaching events, when coral reefs become sickly due to warmer-than-normal waters and local stressors.
The first such bleaching event that was documented in the CNMI was in 2013, followed by another in 2014. There was another large bleaching event in 2017, which killed about 90% of corals within the Saipan lagoon.
“Due to global climate changes, we see more large number of corals degraded in the CNMI,” he said.
Benavente said that global warming is the strongest stressor of reefs in the CNMI. “Global warming, which results in a rise in sea temperature, causes many bleaching in many corals. Corals are stressed when they have been exposed to higher sea surface temperatures and what happens is the algae in the cells get ejected from the corals and the corals turn white,” he said. “The algae is the one that gives the corals colors and, when they are bleached, the corals are more sick and more vulnerable to disease. They are not dead yet. In fact, they can recover and survive if exposure to the elements is lessened or the temperature of the water decreases.”
On the other hand, local stressors that contribute to coral bleaching include marine debris, especially after Super Typhoon Yutu, when there were a lot of tin, tires, nets, and other different debris that were swept out to sea. “A lot of these got caught up in corals, in habitats and they tear them apart. …We also see problems with water quality caused by inadequate drainage and water run offs as these affect coral reefs negatively,” he said.
“What we have seen in recent years is that if these global stressors continue to happen in increments of two to three years, then corals have less chances of surviving because they cannot recover,” he said.
Then there is also the presence of predatory sea star outbreaks, which feeds on corals and there’s been a mild outbreak of those in the CNMI the past years.
From 2008 to 2019, studies show that coral bleaching events have increased on a lot of sites on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. “In the state of the reef report card of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, data collected from the National Coral Reef Ecological monitoring program based in Hawaii, which does ecological monitoring through our 14 islands and throughout the Pacific, basically states that the CNMI as a whole is doing okay. But most of its coral reefs are dead,” Benavente said.
“…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 amount of human population, the greater the amount of stress for the ecosystem,” he added.
To save and sustain the coral reefs in the CNMI, goals have been set for the next 10 years. “The first would be to improve the conditions of CNMI’s reef ecosystems by reducing the amount of sediment, nutrients and other land-based sources of pollution in CNMI watersheds. [The] second [goal is] building an ecosystem based on fishery management approach that sustains fishery resources for cultural recreational, and commercial pursuits to have a healthy, resilient coral reef ecosystem that’s better adapted to the effects of climate change. Lastly, to have an improved coral reef ecosystem health and accelerated recovery through restoration efforts.” Benavente said.
By 2027, the idea is to develop and implement adaptive, resilience-based management strategies. By 2029, the CNMI should already have an improved monitoring program that assesses the long- and short-term impacts of climate change. The development of a restoration plan has to be made in partnership with NOAA, OPD, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and CRM, he added.
Another speaker at the forum, DFW Fisheries biologist Trey Dunn, said his office is coming up with projects that are related to Benavente’s goals. The Saipan Western Lagoon Coral Reef Fisheries Ecosystem Management Plan aims to focus on a broader area of the whole western lagoon and come up with a management plan so that coral ecosystem data or information will help other agencies in the CNMI.
“We can incorporate a lot of things from…different agencies that are collecting data in that area…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 that this management plan is underway. “…Part of the plan is to hire a coral reef ecologist that will help us manage this whole plan…”
“The first year is about acquiring all the information. …We are currently applying for funding for the next two years of it. …On the second year, we will try to get more input for the plan developed from the first year such as public input…information that we missed in year one. Collate and put all of the data and information into a plan and finalize it going into Year 2. The third year is about the outreach of the plan and implementation,” he added.