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    Tuesday, September 25, 2018-7:17:19P.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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2018 is the International Year of the Reef

“I didn’t grow up learning about island ecology or coral reefs. I learned about the great lakes and the 50 states and the Grand Canyon,” JihanYounis told the Variety.

“I never learned about our island’s ecosystems, how important they were. Our different conservation initiatives— I never learned about these programs, never.”

As the Coral Reef Outreach Coordinator for the CNMI Coral Reef Initiative, Younis helps fill in the local “knowledge gap” in island ecology.

“Any time a school wants us to present, we’re glad to come in and present for them,” she said, “because we’re finding that at the fourth and fifth grade level, some of these kids don’t even know the different reef types in the CNMI.”

The CNMI Coral Reef Initiative operates under the CNMI’s Division of Coastal Resources Management and is funded through the Coral Reef Initiative and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Conservation Program (NOAA CRCP).

Summer camp participants learn about the CNMI's coral reefs and watersheds during the 2018 Youth Environmental Stewardship Program. This year's camp theme celebrates the 2018 International Year of the Reef in the CNMI. Summer camp participants learn about the CNMI's coral reefs and watersheds during the 2018 Youth Environmental Stewardship Program. This year's camp theme celebrates the 2018 International Year of the Reef in the CNMI.

Division of Coastal Resources Management strengthens awareness locally about the value of, and threats to CNMI's coral reefs and their associated ecosystems.  Division of Coastal Resources Management strengthens awareness locally about the value of, and threats to CNMI's coral reefs and their associated ecosystems.

“It’s a cross-agency initiative between BECQ, the Division of Fish and Wildlife, and other partnering agencies to effectively conserve our coral reef ecosystems through habitat and biological monitoring, education and outreach, and permitting and enforcement,” she explained.

The local, national, and international effort to protect coral reefs has risen in response to worldwide coral bleaching. Bleaching is the process by which corals lose the algae that gives them their distinctive colors.

“If a coral is severely bleached, disease and death become likely,” Younis explained. “If our reefs are not healthy to begin with and climate change does occur and cause coral bleaching, it’s hard for them to bounce back.”

To combat this global trend, the International Coral Reef Initiative declared 2018 the International Year of the Reef. The CNMI was quick to jump onboard.

“We integrated the International Year of the Reef into Environmental Awareness Month in April and made it a year-long campaign until December,”Younis said. “The goals are to strengthen awareness of our reefs and the associated ecosystems like seagrass wetlands and our native forests. We also want to increase partnerships within government agencies and also between national and local NGOs.Finally, we want to enable better policies to protect coral reefs and promote better management of our reefs.”

The CNMI’s coral is a bastion of biodiversity in Micronesia and foundational to the local fishing and tourism industries. And without proper management, our local reefs may suffer the same global bleaching afflicting other areas of the world.

NMC's Marine Biology class participates in an OpenROV building, operations and learning training and CNMI Snorkels Event.NMC's Marine Biology class participates in an OpenROV building, operations and learning training and CNMI Snorkels Event.

“In our case, I feel like with all the local stressors that we already have from pollution, development and such, it’s really tough to say that our reefs would bounce back [in the event of climate change],” Younis said.

To minimize that risk, the CNMI Coral Reef Initiative adopts a “ridge to reef” watershed based approach that involves monitoring, cleaning and conserving rainwater paths that run from island peaks to ocean shores. Priority areas include LaoLao Bay and the Garapan watershed in Saipan and the Talakhaya watershed in Rota.

“We want people to recognize that here in the CNMI, everything flows from the mountain to the sea,” she said. “We get a lot of rainfall and it picks up a lot of land-based pollution on the way to the ocean —from oil, to trash, to waste… you name it.”

To help illustrate this concept to CNMI youth during a Year of the Reef event, BECQ staff used an enviroscape, a 3D-model of an island and its surrounding waters. The island had farms, houses, a gas station, and other typical structures.

“We asked the kids, ‘Where do you see land clearing?’” Younis said. “They said, ‘By the farms!’ And we said, ‘What happens when they clear land? What’s left?’ and they said, ‘Dirt!’”

Younis sprinkled cinnamon “dirt” around the land clearing. She squeezed chocolate sauce “oil” around the gas station. She poured chocolate sprinkles around the sewers, causing her young audience to erupt with laughter. Then she blanketed the island in “rain” with her spray bottle so that the kids could see how the water picked up the cinnamon, chocolate sauce and chocolate sprinkles and carried them into the sea.

Students learn how rainwater runoff can carry pollutants into the ocean.Students learn how rainwater runoff can carry pollutants into the ocean.

More than color, students illustrate the importance of coral reefs through the International Year of the Reef Rain Barrel Contest.  Hopwood Middle School students Everly Rose Coronan and Erika Pascual topped the first rain-barrel art contest.  Contributed photosMore than color, students illustrate the importance of coral reefs through the International Year of the Reef Rain Barrel Contest. Hopwood Middle School students Everly Rose Coronan and Erika Pascual topped the first rain-barrel art contest. Contributed photos

This was just one of many outreach events hosted by the CNMI Coral Reef Initiative this year; others involved snorkeling adventures, rainwater barrel decoration competitions, an Environmental Expo, a wetland cleanup, and conservation summer camps on Saipan, Tinian and Rota.

Younis also educates the CNMI’s working adults, many of whom own businesses that pollute watershed areas and contribute to the stress put on local coral. She says that the government has been working with Saipan’s pig farmers to help convert them from wet piggeries to dry litter piggeries.

“The Natural Resource Conservation Service USDA offers a cost-share program where if you implement a dry litter piggery, they subsidize some of that,” Younis explained.

It’s all part of a larger “cultural shift” that Younis says is a necessary to save the CNMI’s coral reefs.

“We’re calling on the community to get involved in local conservation initiatives and also, if they have any ideas, they can always come to us — if they want to request a presentation or they want to do something neat in the environment, their ideas are more than welcome.”

“I didn’t grow up learning about island ecology or coral reefs. I learned about the great lakes and the 50 states and the Grand Canyon,” JihanYounis told the Variety. “I never learned about our island’s ecosystems, how important they were. Our different conservation initiatives— I never learned about these programs, never.”