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Coral Reef Ecosystems Speech. Dr Jimmie Rodgers

Noumea, New Caledonia
30 October – 4 November 2006

Closing Remarks by Dr Jimmie Rodgers
Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC)

Please allow me first of all to express my sincere gratitude to the organisers of this extremely important international meeting on Coral Reef Ecosystems Biodiversity in the Pacific for inviting me to make some closing remarks.

Whilst the focus of this week’s deliberations has been on science, my remarks will focus more on relationship issues that impact on the biodiversity of coral reef ecosystems, and on some reality checks and entry points for further scientific interventions.

That this forum is held here at the IRD in New Caledonia is a fitting tribute to the fact that the Pacific Islands region, as part of the developing world, is joint custodian of the major proportion of the world’s coral reefs [1].

Yet, unlike other developing parts of the world, the Pacific Islands region is characterised by the vastness of its oceans compared to its land mass. Only 2 per cent of this massive 33 million square kilometers of total area is land [2].

It is, therefore, not surprising that in the Pacific, the oceans and seas are part of the lifestyle. Coral reefs provide a livelihood for many rural and coastal communities. They are an integral part of Pacific people’s lives. However, it is exactly because of this that coral reefs and their associated ecosystems and biodiversity in the Pacific Islands region are coming under increasing pressure. Why is this so?

Let us first look at the demographic picture of Pacific Island countries and territories over the past 60 years. In 1947, there were approximately 2.4 million people living in the 22 island countries and territories in the region. By 1979, 32 years later, this had almost doubled to 4.3 million people. Now 27 years on, in 2006 the total population stands at 8.9 million people – an increase of more than 100 per cent during the period [3]. Note that the time taken for the population to double is decreasing. We can only imagine what might happen to the biodiversity of our coral reef ecosystems when the population doubles again in less than 30 years. So why is this important?

We need to understand the intricate relationship between human habitation and the impact of people’s activities on the environment they live in and rely on for their livelihood. This calls for the types of discussions that have taken place at this forum over the past few days – to explore and review current scientific knowledge about coral diversity, but more importantly to better understand the principal drivers that can destabilise the biodiversity of coral reef ecosystems, and most importantly to come up with practical options that will help safeguard parts of our coral reef ecosystems for future generations.

So what are the drivers that can destabilise coral reef ecosystems? A number of the papers presented at this forum discussed (i) environmental changes resulting in stresses, changes in competition and habitat alteration resulting in reduced biodiversity, which triggers increased vulnerability and loss of ecosystem function [4]; (ii) environmental factors controlling reef development [5]; and (iii) impacts of coastal development, land-based pollution, and unsustainable fishing [6].

However, we are left with the question – what are the causes of these environmental changes that affect coral reef ecosystems biodiversity? I suggest the causes fall into two categories: (i) natural causes and (ii) human related/driven causes. It is my simple belief that categorising the drivers in this way can provide part of the solution in our approach to better managing and preserving coral reef ecosystems.

With regard to natural causes, which include such phenomena as global warming, land-based pollution due to natural causes, super-storms and volcanic lava/ash, we are limited in what we can do to mitigate the effects, or in the measures we can take to better protect reef ecosystems in specific locations.

However, in relation to human-driven causes, we can do a bit more. This brings me back to the importance of population numbers and growth, and the balance between the number of people, their economic needs, and the impact of the development activities chosen to secure the returns they need for economic sustenance.

The equation is simple. Over the past 27 years, the population of the Pacific has doubled. The size of the land area has remained the same. The size of the coral reefs sustaining coastal populations has remained the same. The pressure on resources has doubled, due to both subsistence food needs and commercial exploitation. Human activities on land and at sea have changed dramatically over the past two decades. The principal driver for development is now economic growth. In many instances, this is at the expense of socio-cultural development and especially environmental protection and conservation.

Human related factors that can destabilise coral reef ecosystems thus include such activities as land-based pollution from poor logging practices; pollution from toxic chemicals used in mines that flow into or are dumped in the sea; dumping of other industrial waste from large construction sites into coral reef areas (a particular risk in atoll countries with little land for proper waste management); pollution from human waste; and the list goes on.

What is especially worrying about the Pacific picture is that by 2012, the region’s population is expected to hit the 10 million [7] mark. It will continue to increase at this pace unless there is a drastic change in fertility rates in the fastest growing parts of the region. This will create even more pressure on our diminishing resources, and even more pressure on already compromised coral reef ecosystems, especially in atoll countries that gain much of their livelihood from reefs. This, however, can also be part of the solution. It is to do with galvanizing behavioural change in people and ensuring that they recognise their coral reefs not only as a resource for exploitation for livelihood and/or economic gain, but also a sacred resource that must be safeguarded for future generations.

This is where science must make a difference. My challenge to you in the business of scientific analysis and research today is: ‘How can scientific knowledge make a difference to ordinary people in a rural village setting who rely on exploiting coral reefs for their livelihood?’ Influencing the behaviour, and ultimately the actions, of users of coral reef resources in a positive way is ultimately what will underpin sustainable development and management of coral reef ecosystems. How can we create a new paradigm incorporating modern scientific management systems and the best of our traditional management systems and local and indigenous knowledge [8], which have been proven to work by the test of time? What legacy do we as today’s experts in the field wish to leave behind for our future generations that they too may enjoy what current generations enjoy? These are not easy questions to answer, but we must at least try.

Today’s generation of Pacific Island people owe their current good fortune to the choices made by previous generations. Will our generation be as kind as they were? Will we leave behind for future generations as much as previous generations left for us? The answer is partly in our hands – if we can translate scientific information in such a way that it positively influences the behaviour of many to utilise their coral reefs in a more sustainable way, then we will have accomplished something. The rest of the answer lies in the hands of resource owners and exploiters, and the power of natural forces.

This brings me back to a best practice example in New Caledonia of the type of approach that needs to be considered and put in place by island nations in the Pacific. The intention to submit New Caledonia’s reef and lagoon system as a UNESCO World Heritage Site [9] in 2007 is a model for other nations in the region to follow. The management plans, developed with the participation of all stakeholders, is an exemplary model of the type of partnership that can work. This project will protect a ‘marine protected area (MPA’) of approximately 15,000 square kilometers of unquantifiable value for current future generations. A similar request to include Marovo Lagoon in the Western Province of Solomon Islands as a World Heritage Site was made to UNESCO in the early nineties.

MPAs continue to be the principal tool used to protect coral reefs from a variety of threats [10]. It is very encouraging that a number of MPA initiatives have already been undertaken by some island nations of the Pacific. They include [11]:

• The Fiji Marine Protected Areas network – announced during the Mauritius Meeting in which Fiji committed to establish a network of MPAs covering 30 per cent of its inshore and offshore marine areas by 2020. To date, Fiji has already achieved 10 per cent MPA coverage. As a result, it received a ‘Global Ocean Conservation Award’ in June 2006.

• The Kiribati Phoenix Islands Marine Protected Area – announced in Curitiba in March this year. Kiribati has decreed the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), which covers nearshore and deep ocean resources of over 184,000 square kilometers – making it the third largest MPA in the world.

• The Micronesian Challenge – also announced in Curitiba. Five Micronesian countries and territories – Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas – jointly committed to placing 30 per cent of their nearshore marine resources and 20 per cent of their forest resources under effective conservation by 2020.

• The University of the South Pacific – through its newly established Faculty of Islands and Oceans, has stated the following goal: by 2010 at least 10 per cent of each graduating class will have been trained in successful implementation of the goals and principles of the Global Island Partnership.

The Pacific region is blessed with its coral reefs, and their ecosystems and biodiversity. They are, however, increasingly under threat from a mix of vulnerability to natural events and the impact of human development processes.

Reef management and conservation in small islands states in the region cannot be approached in the same way as in the larger and more developed countries [12]. In the Pacific, the coral reef is a primary source of livelihood. It constitutes a way of life. In some countries, changes to its utilisation and exploitation will necessarily involve modifications of socio-cultural norms and practices. The challenge for resource owners and harvesters is to balance the needs of today’s generation against the need to preserve some of the resources for future generations – their children and grandchildren.

There is no simple answer. However, we know that we cannot hope to convince people to conserve or preserve their resources without providing viable economic alternatives. For countries where the only resource is their sea, and within that their coral reefs, there is no question of diversification. The question for them is rather what economic activities, and what rate of harvest, will best guarantee economic returns for current generations, while at the same time safeguarding the environment and coral reef ecosystems for future generations.

Various initiatives have been proposed: implementation of MPAs under the CRISP project [13] funded by France; integrated coastal management; development of coral reef resources (aquarium trade, eco-tourism, active substances from marine organisms); rehabilitation of coral reef ecosystems; a regional reef database; and the PROCFish-COFish project funded by the EU [14] – a Pacific-wide study using socio-cultural tools and participatory methodology to assess the status and future prospects of reef fisheries in the region. All these initiatives will help provide a platform for a more sustainable approach to managing and conserving the biodiversity of coral reef ecosystems in the Pacific region into the future.

For all of us, our fundamental responsibility is to collectively contribute to the well-being of people. To do this, people must first understand the consequences, intended or otherwise, of their activities on the very environment upon which they rely for their livelihood and sometimes survival – coral reef ecosystems.

We all have a duty of care to bring about positive change where we can, using the knowledge that we have accumulated through scientific research and debate to further increase the commitment of current generations of people to do more to provide for the future of their children and grandchildren.

I am sure that the last few days have raised as many questions as answers. You have had the opportunity to influence the future direction of how we can best address the challenge of getting optimum, balanced benefits from the region’s coral reefs. You have helped chart a course for the future.

It is my hope that this course will soon make an impact and become a catalyst for change, both for the benefit of people who own or use coral reef resources, and for coral reef ecosystems in their own right.

To preserve our coral reefs, people have to be custodians as well as users. We all owe it to our future generations to do our bit during our watch, so that we leave behind a legacy that we can all be proud of.

Finally, I would like once again to thank all the partners from within New Caledonia and around the globe who made this event possible. A special thank you goes to the hard-working committees, interpreters, our host organisation the IRD, and most of all, all delegates without whom this meeting would not have materialised.

I am sure that in the not too distant future, our common radar will bring us together again to check the progress we have made since this meeting, so we will not only have talked, but will have moved to the next level of influencing change to protect the biodiversity of our coral reef ecosystems and ensure a better and more sustainable future for our people.


© Scoop Media

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