Tonga Reef Exploration Finds Evidence Of Overfishing

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Researchers find less sharks, large schools of fish than expected

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Oct. 3, 2013) – Tonga has some phenomenally beautiful reefs but there is a new concern about overfishing, which is evident in some areas, according to the findings of a reef expedition undertaken over the last month.

Tonga’s coral reefs in most parts are healthy but there are places where they are damaged, said a Chief Scientist who was concerned with the low number of large fish due to overfishing and recommended more marine protected areas with tougher fishing regulations to ensure the recovery of damaged reefs and to bring back more fish.

Andrew Brukner led the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation Global Reef Expedition in Ha‘apai, Vava‘u and Niuatoputapu for 28-days and carried out research on the health and resilience of coral reefs, including habitat mapping. They will make recommendations on how Tonga can preserve the resources.

At a presentation onboard the M/Y Golden Shadow in Nuku’alofa on October 2, Mr. Bruckner told Matangi Tonga that in general Tonga's coral reefs are healthy in most parts of the areas they researched. He said in many areas in all of the outer islands the coral reefs were really quite phenomenal and beautiful covering 50 to 90 percent of the ocean bottom.

However, at the same time there were other places that the coral reefs had died especially in the northern area due to storms and tsunami and even though the coral were damaged they are coming back so it ranged from areas that had lots to other places that had very little, he said.

"The largest concern affecting coral reefs globally is climate change like the broad scale impacts of water temperature getting warm causing bleaching. Tonga is fortunate that its reefs here have not bleached since 2000 as a lot of places around the world have bleached and a lot have died."

Signs of stress

Mr. Bruckner said there are signs of stress related to too much fishing pressure and it is worrying. "Like everywhere else in the world we have problems with overfishing but what most concerned me here was the fish community because in most of the places we saw very few large fish and there were no large gropers everywhere we went," he said.

"Divers saw less than eight to nine sharks during the entire trip which is a really a low number. We also did not see a lot of big schools of fish like what you would expect so there has been quite a bit of fishing pressure but these fish are really important to controlling the health of the coral reefs," he said.

Night scuba diving

Mr. Bruckner said Tonga needs to address the threat of human impacts like in some places there is too much nutrients going into the water from the sewage or from agriculture, and there are certain type of fishing he noticed like scuba diving at night of parrot fish which are very critical to the reefs, he said.

He said if more marine protected areas and fishing regulations are put in place the damaged reefs could rebound and the fish might come back as well.

"Tonga made a good start by having in place protected areas but that needs expanding. There are at least two in the Ha’apai Group with one in Vava’u and in those areas where no one fishes we saw more large fish and more different species in comparison to other places where people normally fish. We need more of those protected areas in Tonga because it is the key step towards the protection of coral reefs."

Vital information

‘Asipeli Palaki the CEO of Tonga's Ministry of Lands, Environment, Climate Change and Natural Resources was appreciative of the research and findings.

He said one of the issues as far as coral reefs and marine resources are concerned in Tonga is the lack of information and lack of baseline data for the overall management of the resources.

"There have been a few studies before on the status of marine resources coral reefs in particular but we lack baseline holistic information to better manage the marine resources and this study and research is very important for our data and information and is vital for the future management of our resources," he said.

The expedition partnered with officials from Tonga’s Ministry of Lands, Environment, Climate Change and Natural Resources and the Ministry Fisheries.

Attending the function last night was the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Tonga Lord Fakafanua and members of the diplomatic corps among other guests.

The foundation is a US based Non-Profit foundation and the expedition is funded by the President and Chairman of the foundation HRH Prince Khalid bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia.

The vessel is now on its way to New Caledonia for its next expedition.

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