Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Unsustainable Harvesting of Sea Cucumbers and the Consequences for Coral-Reef Ecosystems of Palau

by Dr. Peter Houk
Chief Biologist, Pacific Marine Resources Institute
Editor, Journal of Micronesian Fishing

Upon my first visit to Palau in 1994, I was immediately impressed by the seemingly endless diversity and abundance of marine life. While Palau is clearly blessed with an amazing natural setting (geology, geography, and oceanography), I found out that traditional management, culture, and respect were equally influential in creating the healthy, thriving coral-reef ecosystems I witnessed.For me, these early experiences in Palau confirmed my passion to better understandhow these magnificent underwater scenes evolve and function.

I have since moved on to coestablish a non-governmental organization dedicated to assisting Micronesian jurisdictions collect and interpret scientific data for their use in sound management planning, the Pacific Marine Resources Institute (www.pacmares.com). Research across Micronesia over the past decade has provided me with a wealth of insight into coral-reef ecosystems, their associated fisheries, and the tradition and culture that is interwoven into the coral-reef food webs.At the numerous regional meetings I’ve attended over the years, Palau continues to lead the way in implementing conservation and management policies that aim to provide long-term economic gain and sustainable fisheries into the future. However, the perceived success must be put into the perspective of the changing world we live in.

In comparison to many coral reefs around the world, Palau clearly represents a unique natural wonder. However, the pressures of enhanced westernization and economic growth continue to influence marine resources around the world, and the stories that elders have shared with me clearly portray declining marine resource abundances through time across Micronesia, including Palau (see www.micronesianfishing.com). It seems clear that it is becoming harder and harder to preserve the fishery stocks that once seemed endless, and although Palau is a regional conservation leader, this conservation success might best be defined in relative terms, while many people fail to understand the absolute decline in marine resources that have been occurring through time. It goes without saying that healthy fish stocks are needed to keep coral-reef ecosystems thriving, so insight from Palauan elders should be taken as a sincere concern for the livelihoods of future generations.

However, most recently, I learned about the sale and export of large quantities of Palau’s sea cucumbers, with limited study or documentation to ensure that sustainable stocks remain, which can fulfill their ecological functions. This was extremely surprising to me, because across Micronesia, many jurisdictions strictly limit or prohibit sea cucumber harvesting due to their slow growth rates and importance to the coral-reef ecosystem. It’s ironic that over the years I’ve witnessed Palau to be a conservation leader, however, just recently, they have decided to exploit marine resources in a manner that is already obsolete within much of Micronesia. This decision is ultimately what encouraged me to write this article, and describe what many already know as the functional roles of sea cucumbers on coral reefs.

Sea cucumbers feed on sediment and detritus (decaying organic matter) that originate from larger coral-reef fish and invertebrates (fish poop for example), and also from surrounding watersheds. The very fact that so many sea cucumbers exist in Palau highlights just how much of this food source is available for processing. But, what happens if detritus is not processed? Left unchecked, detritus can slowly be consumed by the bottom dwelling corals and algae that live on the reefs. However, the key is that when too much detritus becomes available, algae and other undesirable can grow and outcompete corals for space on the reef. Translated, the once coral-dominated reef will slowly (over ~10 years) become dominated by algae, reducing structure and habitat, and all of the socioeconomic benefits that a healthy reefs offers Palauan livelihoods. As a last note, the combined impact of reduced fish populations, many of which also eat algae and detritus (parrotfish, Melemau, and Kemedukl), and sea cucumber declines represents an intensified threat to Palau’s nearshore coral-reef ecosystems.

You might draw a comparison with the dirt that accumulates in your house. Without sweeping, the accumulated dirt would eventually build up so much that you no longer want to live inside, and bacteria, mold, and fungus would take over your residence. Sea cucumbers and fish represent the “skobang”. While fighting the national policy of permitting sea cucumber harvesting may seem like a daunting challenge to many, I think that providing education and outreach to the state governments represents a better means towards solving this issue for Palau. To my knowledge, the states decide how to manage their resources, and generating a wealth of profit from sea cucumber harvesting today, in exchange for a compromised coral-reef ecosystem 10 years later, seems illogical. I strongly encourage all the state governments to take a deeper look at the consequences of uncontrolled sea cucumber harvesting.

Pacific Marine Resources Institute is a non-profit organization based in Saipan, CNMI, dedicated to improving scientific research and monitoring across Micronesia for their use in sound resource management planning (www.pacmares.com).

Monday, March 7, 2016

If an 8 year old can write a letter to President Obama, so can you!

Nick Silverstein is an 8 year old shark activist from Queens, New York.  I've worked with Nick and his mom for a few years helping him to advocate for the protection of sharks in the United States and around the world.  A few years ago, Nick wrote to President Obama asking him to protect sharks.


Nick's letter provides a perfect example of how to write a comment letter.  In three simple paragraphs he (1) introduces himself and explains why the President should listen to him, (2) gives some background information on the issue, and (3) makes a specific ask on how to amend the proposed regulations.  Nick's letter is also handwritten and contained to a single page, which is preferable.  Unless you are a technical expert commenting on lengthy regulations, your message will be more effective if it is short and simple to understand.


Writing to your elected officials is easy to do and they appreciate hearing from their constituents.  So if an 8 year old kid living in Queens can write a letter to the President, what's stopping you?

Guest blog by Angelo Taotaotasi.  Follow Angelo on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Friday, March 4, 2016

How to write an effective online petition in 5 easy steps

Guest Blog
by Angelo Taotaotasi

Online petition signatures play a prominent role in the modern environmental movement.  Learning how to write better petitions will make us better campaigners and allow us to harness the power of our least active supporters. And when I say campaigners, I say it with the understanding that a petition is being created as part of a campaign. Writing and publishing an online petition should never in and of itself be considered a campaign, but it can be an important tool in a larger strategy.  In the world of advocacy, emails are more effective than online signatures. Letters carry more weight than emails. Telephone calls get better results than letters. And face-to-face meetings, especially repeated meetings with influential people, lead to real change.

Petitions can still be very effective when used well.  Here are a few tips on how to use online petitions to protect the ocean:

#1. Use proper spelling and grammar
You know those emails you get from Nigeria asking you to send them money? That’s what policy makers think of when you send them your petition with grammar and spelling mistakes. Try to avoid that. And don’t use slang or emoticons, either.

#2. Be specific with what you are asking
A petition that calls on the government to "Protect the Ocean" or "Save Sharks" won't be very effective because people have different ideas about how to achieve that.  You have to be specific by spelling out which law or which management practice it is you want to change.

#3. Target the person or organization you want to take action
Are you asking your legislature to pass a law? Do you want the president to sign it? Do you want the foreign minister to support something at an international meeting? Whatever policy it is you want changed, there is a real human being who will have to either change it or carry it out. That person has an email address and an office with both a mailbox and a telephone. Figure out who that person or persons may be, and make them the target of your efforts.

#4. Deliver your petition
All your effort creating a specific ask to a targeted person with proper grammar and spelling will have been a waste of time if your petition is not delivered. Some of the petition websites deliver emails to the targets, but not all of them do. You can also deliver your petition in person by printing it up, putting a cover sheet on it and carrying it to your target’s office. You can also deliver it via the media. Call up your local reporter and tell them how many people signed your petition and see if they’ll write a story.

#5. Be Creative
And most importantly, stand out from the crowd. Policy makers receive a barrage of communication from their constituents. There are already a mess of ocean petitions out there, not to mention petitions for everything else under the sun including guns, jobs, government spending, education, and you name it. There is an advocacy group for every issue these days. You need to make your voice and the voice of your supporters heard above all that noise.  What’s your creative idea?

BONUS: Give your supporters something else to do
And remember, an online petition is the least effective tool in your advocacy arsenal. You should have it available for your least active supporters to sign, but at the same time you should also be helping your more active supporters send emails, make phone calls, and set up meetings.

We encourage your feedback and ideas you may have. Please leave them in the comments section of this blog, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.