This is an article we are submitting to our local newspaper.
The wind and seas have calmed down today from the 25 knots and 15 foot ocean swells of yesterday. Those kinds of days make it challenging to move about the cabin, cook ,or sleep aboard our 53′ sailing research vessel Llyr. We are currently making passage from the remote island of Suwarrow in the northern Cook Islands in the central South Pacific to Vava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga. It is a 6 day passage and we are amusing ourselves with the technicalities of crossing the dateline: “if today is tomorrow, then what is yesterday?” It doesn’t take much to entertain you way out here in the middle of the ocean. RV Llyr and crew are well into our second season of work and study on coral reefs and coastal communities. This year finds us crossing the mighty, blue Pacific Ocean, from Panama to Fiji, over 6500 miles of ocean at a speed of about 6 to 7 mph!
RV Llyr, a steel sailing ketch, is the project boat of Berkshire Sweet Gold Maple & Marine and the Steele-McCutchen family. Right now, we have a crew of seven: our family of five, an intern from Four Rivers School in Greenfield, and a climate change speaker/ photographer from Minnesota. The purpose of our expedition is to link from ridge to reef, combining our interests and concerns about sustainable harvesting, small-scale economies, and the support for biological and cultural – or biocultural – diversity in a time of climate change.
We arrived in Panama right on the heels of completing our 2013 maple harvest in Heath to prep the boat for the Pacific. Our route this year has taken us through the remarkable Panama Canal, followed by a month-long offshore trip to the Marquesas in French Polynesia. From there, we traveled south the the low-lying coral atolls of the Tuamotus, and then westward to the Society Islands. We left French Polynesia from Bora Bora, bound for Suwarrow, an uninhabited island in the northern Cooks. Our final destination for 2013 is Fiji, where we’ll haul Llyr out of the water and “plant” her in a trench, there to sit out the cyclone season of the southern hemisphere (roughly October – April). In Spring 2014 our plan is to sail RV Llyr to Vanuatu in Melanesia where we hope to begin long-term work with coastal communities.
Above the waterline, we’ve been interviewing a variety of people – fishers, farmers, teachers, community leaders, scientists – to learn about their pressing concerns and their knowledge of these land- and seascapes. We’ve heard about overfishing by industrial fleets – mostly Asian, but American as well – that threaten the long term foodstocks of these traditionally seafaring people who still rely, to a large extent, on subsistence fishing. We’ve also heard that the local catch of reef fish is getting smaller, as are the sizes of individual fish caught. In some places, fishing livelihoods have almost entirely collapsed and they now have to import fish from other island groups. We’ve learned about the collapse of Black Pearl farming and the unemployment crisis. We’ve heard reports and witnessed the devastation to coral reefs from a multitude of impacts. We’ve visited islands that are mere feet above current sea level, where people will have no recourse except to relocate from their ancestral homes when sea levels rise, as forecast within the next decades.
Below the waterline, we’ve been studying coral reefs, using Reef Check survey methodologies, georeferenced GoPro video footage, and general observations. New to the underwater world of the South Pacific, our only benchmarks are the reefs of the Caribbean. Those reefs have suffered dramatically in the last 20 years, losing significant amounts of coral and fish biomass. While we know that many of the same stresses are present in the Pacific, we’ve held out hopes for healthier reefs given the higher degree of remoteness of these islands. So far, we’ve seen a few locations with colorful reefs and fish – including our first soft corals, which are unique to the Pacific –but overall our findings have led to a somewhat grim mood aboard Llyr. We’ve seen a lot of rubble, reefs overcome by algae, and too few fish. In areas of French Polynesia where the coral is virtually non-existent, the dive businesses construct a spectacle to satisfy tourists by establishing feeding stations that draw fish and sharks.
Coral reefs are arguably the most biodiverse habitats on the planet, along with rainforests, even though they cover only 1% of the Earth’s sea floor. They are home to one quarter of all marine fish species and function as nurseries for offshore fish, thereby feeding millions of people. Corals, to many people’s surprise, are actually animals: they hunt for food with stinging cells, farm by raising algae, and build skeletons from minerals in seawater that form protective barriers for islands. Corals have been around for 200 million years and have survived dramatic environmental changes during that time. Though highly adaptable and tough creatures, scientists now know that corals and the reef structures they build are disappearing at unprecedented rates, largely attributable to human factors. Local human assaults on reefs include nutrient runoff in the form of sewage, agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, physical damage, and overfishing. Global vectors include warming oceans which can lead to coral bleaching and now, a change in seawater pH due to the oceans absorbing too much of the atmospheric CO2 caused by humans burning fossil fuels. As the seawater becomes more acidic, the concentration of available calcium ions decreases. Calcium carbonates are necessary for building skeletons and shells for corals, certain “good” algae and other marine organisms.
Aboard Llyr, we have a lot more to learn about what is taking place in the oceans and in these local communities, but the stories we hear, and the scenes we are witnessing all indicate that a crisis is well underway. Ultimately, this crisis will affect not only reefs and South Pacific islanders, but people around the globe. Billions of years ago, life emerged from the oceans. Today, the oceans continue to make life on Earth possible: oceans are critical to our food chain; photosynthesizing plankton provide 50% of our oxygen; our weather is a product of the inextricable link between oceans and atmospheric circulation. These are just some of the incredible life-sustaining elements of the seas.
And lest this account portrays too much an image of people helplessly standing by while their world crumbles, there are many tales we can tell of people we’ve met who speak and act passionately about their lands and seas and the legacy for future generations. In a couple of short months, we will return to our farm and the forests of Heath. The ground will stop moving beneath our feet, and the familiar horizons of our hilltown will be welcome sights. We will continue to take inspiration from these encounters so that we may keep the oceans, the reefs and these communities in our sights as well, to help guide our actions on behalf of biocultural diversity from ridge-to-reef.