REEF WATCH: CNMI KEEPS EYE ON CORAL

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By Scott Radway

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (August 5, 2002 - Pacific Daily News)---Man is killing the coral reefs.

Scientists say that on Guam.

They are also saying that all over Micronesia, across the Pacific islands, and across the globe.

They can pile folder after folder in front of you to drive home that point.

One graph often pointed out shows there are 70 percent fewer fish in Guam's waters than there were just under two decades ago. Worldwide, we have lost 27 percent of the world's reefs, says a thick report called The Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2000.

But how do scientists know? Except for a few off-kilter scientists, the world agrees neither reefs, nor fish talk.

Well, here's how they know.

It's called coral reef monitoring. With air tanks strapped snugly on their backs, marine biologists are literally in the water, counting fish, counting coral, checking off with underwater pencils and paper just how many crabs or lobsters can be found.

"If you are not in the water monitoring, you can't see the changes," said John Starmer, a marine biologist with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Department of Coastal Resources Management.

The CNMI's coral reef monitoring program covers more area than just about anywhere in Micronesia, Starmer said. Four islands -- Saipan, Tinian, Rota and Agrihan -- are part of the CNMI program.

The reef monitoring also is very in-depth, Starmer said, and involves three government agencies. The Department of Environmental Quality tests water quality and performs assessments with Starmer's department and the Division of Fish and Wildlife.

The scope and complexity of the program are the reasons the Pacific Daily News chose to feature it this week.

Areas all around those four islands are selected and monitored, for the most part, on an annual basis, Starmer said. The areas are divided into grid-like sections called transects and surveyors swim up and down them, assessing the reef.

Data such as reef abundance are noted: how much coral exists, how diverse fish and coral species are, or if there are only a few species. Surveyors also note fish size, amounts of algae and the number of invertebrates, and even videotape the reef.

Starmer said that once reef health is assessed, scientists have a baseline from which to track changes over time. All the variables they note help to better determine what elements might be damaging the reef.

"It is kind of like a big puzzle, and the more pieces of the puzzle you have, the easier it is too see the big picture," Starmer said.

Guam does similar monitoring, but its reef surveys are primarily directed at marine preserves, said Guam Department of Agriculture fisheries supervisor Trina Leberer.

The CNMI program has chosen numerous sites in and out of preserves, areas of high stress and pristine reefs, Starmer said.

The theory is that once you have all the information, you can mitigate the impact of man on the reef.

For instance, if too much soil is pouring onto the reef and killing coral, you can take action on land before the coral all dies.

Or if the coral is dying because of high water temperatures associated with the El Niño weather system, people can be more careful about what they let slip into the sea, Starmer said.

Things such as fertilizer can put coral on the edge, and a water temperature increase can tip it over that edge, killing it.

The CNMI's monitoring program started in 1999, so the effectiveness of the program in getting people to save their reefs has not been thoroughly tested.

But Starmer said with good information -- with detailed reports -- he thinks people and politicians will make the right decisions in the commonwealth.

Coral reef health is no longer just a topic for academics.

People understand what reefs are worth and the risks they face, he said.

"There is a lot of good, common-sense issues that have been ignored for a while, but people's awareness is increasing," Starmer said.

"Within the islands, people understand residents' well-being and the economy rests on the health of the reefs."

For additional reports from the Pacific Daily News, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Pacific Daily News (Guam).

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