OPINION | Restoring Pacific reefs

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The cultural exchange program is developing strategies to best protect reefs across the Pacific. Picture: ABC WIDE BAY: GRACE WHITESIDE

ON Christina Gabriel’s island home of Samoa there are still telltale signs of a catastrophic tsunami that engulfed its shores almost 15 years ago.

Ms Gabriel remembers living on the eastern side of Upolu island when in September 2009 a rare double earthquake created waves up to 22 metres high that hit Samoa, American Samoa, and Tonga, killing almost 200 people and destroying villages.

Beneath the ocean surface, where food sources are so crucial to her nation’s way of life, recovery from the huge waves remains slow.

“The reefs were all washed out. There were completely no corals. We need assistance to replant and improve,” Ms Gabriel said.

A long way from home, the community leader has been tapping into the knowledge of fellow Indigenous leaders from Australia and the Pacific in a cultural exchange in Bundaberg, north of Brisbane, aimed at conserving and improving the health of reefs across the Pacific.

Australia has 16 Pacific island neighbours who are all on the frontline of climate change, which they declare is their single greatest existential threat.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says coral reefs in the Pacific region are particularly vulnerable to a changing climate, disease, and human influence.

It has prompted Pacific leaders to work together to combat those challenges and develop a reef monitoring network with the assistance of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

“We need to improve because we hardly have the species that used to live in those areas,” Ms Gabriel said.

“We want to get more food for our people in the future.”

Papua New Guinea representative Naomi Longa is a co-director of the Sea Women of Melanesia, a group that trains women in PNG and Solomon Islands to help protect reef zones in their communities.

“We have a lot of challenges. Communities don’t understand graphs and figures,” Ms Longa said.

As part of the monitoring network, a digital tool developed by AIMS called ReefCloud allows Pacific countries to share data on their coral reefs in real time which speeds up monitoring and conservation efforts.

“We can have a dashboard [and] use that to relay the information to the communities,” Ms Longa said.

Balancing tradition and modern

AIMS scientist Yashika Nand said it was important to utilise traditional expertise in coral reef management.

“With climate change [there’s] so much disturbance, like too many cyclones, overfishing.

There is a lot of land-based activities that are affecting the resources,” Ms Nand said.

AIMS principal research scientist Dr Manuel Gonzalez-Rivero said the workshops in Australia and the Pacific were leading to exciting developments.

“What we’re trying to do is come up with recommendations about traditional knowledge — how do we manage that?” he said.

“But also, how do we pair that with new technologies to help save the coral reef?”

“The community can understand and know what’s happening out on the reef.”

‘Looking after our country’

Gidarjil Development Corporation ranger and Taribelang Bunda man Des Purcell sees the benefits of blending traditional knowledge with western science in reef projects around Queensland’s Wide Bay.

“There’s a lot of runoff in our area from local farming so we want to make sure that our water is healthy and our fish stocks are protected, [that] there’s seagrass for our turtles and dugongs,” he said.

For local Gurang elder Lola Tiger the cultural exchange was yielding good results.

“Our little part of the world is in good hands,” she said.

“The more we educate people, and the more people want to be educated, we will be in good hands. It’s very important that we save our planet.

  • GRACE WHITESIDE is a news reporter for ABC Wide Bay based in Bundaberg.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.