Marianas Variety

Last updateTue, 27 Aug 2019 12am







    Monday, August 26, 2019-8:49:25P.M.






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Our Oceania | DCRM: Warm summer waters come with threat of coral bleaching

WARM summer waters mean the CNMI’s coral reefs are at higher risk of bleaching.

Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA rated the condition of the CNMI reefs as “fair,” though the status report writers noted that the commonwealth’s relatively high score relied heavily on the reefs surrounding the sparsely-populated Northern Islands, which are largely unaffected by locally-caused pollution and depletion of fish.

Click to enlarge
Crown-of-thorns starfish.
Bleaching coral reef.  Photos provided by DCRM

“While these scores reflect data collected through summer 2017, very recent data suggest coral reef bleaching has resulted in severe impacts,” the report continued. “Up to 90 percent loss for some branching coral species has occurred around Saipan and Tinian. It is unclear what the impact of the latest bleaching event will be on all reefs of the Mariana Islands, but preliminary information suggests a widespread loss across the archipelago.”

According to David Benavente, lead biologist for the Division of Coastal Resources Management or DCRM, recent years have brought significant changes to the quality of the CNMI’s reef ecosystem.

“In the past 10 years, reefs degraded by a lot,” he told Variety. “Like when I started diving in 2003, there was still a lot of coral cover. And for some of those reefs — our long-term sites — coral cover has decreased by 50 percent.”

Benavente added that dive sites near Bird Island, LauLau Beach, Fishing Base, and sites across Rota and Tinian have all been significantly affected.

Warming waters across the globe already put the CNMI’s reefs at risk; with the addition of local pollution and hot summer months, their condition has become dire. If the CNMI continues on its current trajectory, it runs the risk of losing its coral reefs altogether.

Without the reefs, the Northern Marianas could suffer from flooding, a loss of local seafood, degradation of local beaches, irreparable damage to the CNMI’s tourism industry, and increased vulnerability to typhoon-related damage and erosion, explained Mr. Benavente.

“We wouldn’t have Beach Road, probably,” he added.

That’s why he and his colleagues at DCRM are urging the local community to help the CNMI curtail coral bleaching by reporting vulnerable and bleached reefs. For example, divers and snorkelers can report any sightings of crown-of-thorns predatory starfish, which eat coral.

Residents can also limit their use of plastics, he added.

“They break down into microscopic pieces and eventually fish eat them, and you eat the fish and still retain that. So everyone’s affected by it… even when you go spear fishing, you see plastic in the water and you’ll see the fish swim up and eat the plastic.”

Jihan Younis, education and outreach coordinator for the Coral Reef Initiative, also pointed out the importance of identifying and limiting harmful actions on land before their ramifications reach the ocean.

“Once it’s in the water, it’s harder to address,” she said. “Garapan has a lot of red flags, a lot of beach contamination, and that’s really always due to land pollution runoff because it’s all concrete there and there’s not a lot of vegetation to filter or capture [water].”

Erosion control techniques including permeable parking, silt fences and vegetative barriers can protect reefs from pollution that would otherwise travel from land to sea carried by water runoff.

Denise Perez, a DCRM biologist working with the Marine Monitoring Program, added that businesses looking to develop land “have to develop the mindset that they want to do it in a sustainable way — in a way that minimizes environmental impacts.”

All three agreed that funding is the main roadblock to implementing widespread changes that would save the coral reefs.

To report coral bleaching, crown-of-thorns starfish sightings, or anything else endangering the CNMI’s coral reefs, email David Benavente at or call DCRM at 664-8300.