- The Washington Times - Monday, September 2, 2002

AITUTAKI, Cook Islands From its tiny population and vast size, the Pacific Ocean and its islands would seem to be the least vulnerable area to man's depredations.
But after destroying much of the Caribbean Sea's and Indian Ocean's marine life, man finally has caught up with the Pacific.
A bizarre array of Chinese gourmets, American marine-aquarium lovers, fashion-conscious button manufacturers and inevitably global warming are contributing in different ways to destroying the Pacific's coral reefs, planetary store of the richest biodiversity after the rain forests, said environmentalists who gathered last month in Rarotonga, largest of the Cook Islands, for the seventh South Pacific Conference for Nature Conservation and Protected Areas. The conference, held every four years, is the prime gathering of Pacific Ocean environmentalists.
"The Pacific is the last place on earth to save reef wilderness," said David Olson of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Southeast Asia once supported the richest marine life in the world, but in the second half of the 20th century, human population explosions led to the destruction of much of that region's reefs.
In the past five years, rogue fishermen from the Philippines and Indonesia, along with lesser numbers from Japan, Taiwan and China, have been pillaging reefs of the widely scattered and sparsely populated islands to the east, participants said.
"They come to a desert island and they wipe out whole populations of reef fish, sea cucumbers, clams and trochus snails," said Noah Idechong, a member of parliament from Palau, the Pacific island nation closest to Southeast Asia. "They use dynamite and crowbars and spear guns."
Or, he and others said, the fishermen anchor off an inhabited island and announce to its residents that they are ready to buy fish. So the islanders who until then had practiced sustainable subsistence fishing like 80 percent of Pacific islanders wipe out much of their future food supply for quick cash.
Some fishermen use cyanide to stun fish and catch them for export to China, and particularly Hong Kong, where customers are willing to pay $50 a pound for the pleasure of pointing to a snapper or a grouper in a restaurant aquarium and having it cooked and served on the spot.
Many of the same fishermen also use cyanide to stun tiny but valuable aquarium fish, 60 percent of which are sold to fanciers in the United States.
Cyanide kills reefs, and the fishermen using crowbars to take rocks on which live corals grow also are making a major contribution to the destruction of the reefs also for the aquarium trade. In Papua New Guinea, crowbars are used to crack coral in which exportable crayfish hide.
In late August, the University of California at Los Angeles issued the results of a five-year study of coral reefs around the world. The study concluded that dynamite and cyanide had caused the most damage to reefs.
Meanwhile, the world of fashion might not have an obvious connection to Pacific biodiversity, but because natural shell buttons are back in fashion, its main source, the trochus snail, is threatened. The number caught has shot up, and entire populations of this creature have been eliminated.
But perhaps the most damage has been done by rising temperatures. A rise in water temperature of less that 3 degrees over a few weeks kills coral, which takes years or even decades to grow back. The phenomenon is known as "bleaching," because the reefs lose their vibrant, living color.
This is visible here at Aitutaki in the Cook Islands a gorgeous piece of land north of Rarotonga that is part atoll and part volcanic rock. Snorkeling inside the lagoon's turquoise waters reveals a vast cemetery of whitish-gray coral with wisps of green algae clinging to it. Only when a patch of vividly colored live coral comes into view can one grasp the magnitude of what has been lost.
Most of the bleaching happened in the 1998 El Nino phenomenon the biggest ever recorded. Some climate researchers say El Nino events are likely to increase in frequency because of global warming. This year, Australia's Great Barrier Reef has had its worst-ever bleaching event, and reports are trickling in of damage elsewhere in the South Pacific.
Some specialists say that while global warming accounts for most of the bleaching, reefs that have been weakened by silt are more susceptible, and a tourist boom in the Cook Islands has increased construction and the silt runoff it causes, along with the discharge of wastewater. Another culprit is the coral-eating, crown-of-thorns starfish that can ravage weakened coral. The main predator of this starfish the giant triton has seen its populations decimated for the beauty of its conchlike shell.
Protected from dynamite-wielding poachers by the New Zealand Air Force as French Polynesia and New Caledonia are protected by the French military the Cook Islands, located roughly halfway between Australia and Peru, have fared better than most.
But even in Rarotonga, where tourism is the main source of income, overfishing in the lagoon ringing the island has become extensive. So in 1997, the village chiefs declared a quarter of the island's coastline a "raui" a protected marine area where gathering anything is forbidden.
"There was a lot of resistance at first," said Akaiti Ama, a 72-year-old tribal leader. "But now everyone respects the raui, and there's no poaching," she said.
Many islanders who fish in the rest of the lagoon have reported more and bigger fish spilling out from the raui into areas where they can be caught.
Similar measures are spreading in Fiji, the most populous Pacific island state. It began in the Verata district, where Jeoli Veitayaki of Fiji's University of the South Pacific reported having "experienced the pain of coming back empty-handed" because of overfishing.
At the conference, he introduced Pio Radikedike, traditional chief of an eight-village area, who explained in halting English: "Before, plenty fish and seashells, everything is plenty there. But we ate and we sold, and then [there was] no more."
To stop the loss, the village chiefs revived a tradition that banned fishing in an area for a period after the death of the chief of that area.
They extended it to several years and banned gill nets, which kill too many species, and prohibited the use of cyanide or dynamite.
"We used tradition for conservation purposes," Mr. Veitayaki said.
"There are still pristine reefs in the Tuamotus, the Line Islands and northern Cooks," said Mr. Olson of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
But whether they will survive to the delight of divers, travelers and fans of nature documentaries will depend in part on how the people of the Pacific adhere to an old saying of theirs: "We didn't inherit the earth from our ancestors we are borrowing it from our children."

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