An example of healthy coral.

Diving under the surface of Kiribati

The people of Kiribati rely on healthy coral reef systems to protect the shorelines of their atolls and provide a habitat for fish that are integral not only to the food security of their own nation, but also to exports that feed the world.

The isolated nature of the atolls of Kiribati means that diving to assess the health of coral involves significant risks. There are no s

An example of healthy coral.

An example of healthy coral.

pecialised medical facilities equipped to treat dive injuries such as decompression sickness, even standard emergency facilities may be several days travel away. Divers must do their best to check each other’s equipment and wellbeing at all times.

This does not deter staff from the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resource Development who are undertaking an ecosystem monitoring program to assess the health of corals in the Gilbert Islands group. Funding for these trips and new monitoring equipment has been provided by KAPII (Kiribati Adaptation Program – Pilot Implementation Phase II), a project that aims to reduce Kiribati’s vulnerability to climate change, climate variability and sea level rise through adaptation.

Aranteiti Tekiau, a research officer at the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resource Development, has recently returned from a trip to the outer islands of Tamana and Tabiteuea North. What he saw whilst diving is causing him great concern. “Unfortunately we found serious coral bleaching at Tamana. The people on the outer islands may not notice it or see what it is. But it definitely has an impact on their lives and getting what they need from the ocean.”

“If coral health is declining fish abundance will decline as well. This is our main source of food and where we get our protein from. In Kiribati it is especially important that our coral is healthy,” stresses Mr. Tekiau.

This reliance on fish cannot be overstated. Each i-Kiribati is estimated to eat somewhere between 72kg and 207kg of seafood every year. Kiribati also encompasses the largest exclusive economic zone in the Pacific with over 3.5 million square kilometers of ocean and fisheries that are estimated to be worth more than US$150 million annually to the international market.

Ribwanataake Awira, the secretary of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resource Development, speaks from the big picture perspective. “The overall trend that we are experiencing right now is the change in climate. That is the real concern as we live very close to our environment here.”

Bleached coral - 300dpi photo - Dr Simon Donner

An example of bleached coral.

Mr. Awira fears that “an increase in temperature is one of the major factors that will affect the coral as we know it. Even if there is only an increase by 1 degree it will start to die off. That is what we are worried about now, especially in areas like Kiribati where we depend entirely on the growth and health of the reefs.”

One strategy the Government of Kiribati can consider is creating Marine Protected Areas where healthy coral reefs that have resisted bleaching are located. The creation of these areas may be able to increase the resilience of surrounding reefs. Through increased monitoring operations the identification of areas suitable for protection becomes possible. To do this effectively requires a great deal of equipment, something not always easily accessible in least developed countries.

The KAPII project has provided a range of items to the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resource Development including regulators, scanners, scuba tanks, software, weight belts, underwater digital cameras and slates for data collection.

Mr. Awira is grateful for the capability the new equipment brings to his ministry. “To do this type of visual assessment work we require scuba gear to continue monitoring the growth of corals. The official handing over of the equipment will enhance the capacity of our staff to maintain this level of monitoring. It will help a lot.”

There are many stories about the impressive diving ability of the i-Kiribati, with or without equipment. Mr. Tekiau has seen it himself. “It is not a lie. Kiribati people have their own way of diving without scuba gear. I have often seen people here free dive for much longer than five minutes!”

The ecosystem monitoring team has four more KAPII dives this year on Abaiang, Abemama, Butaritari islands and in the Tarawa lagoon, as well as ongoing monitoring projects beyond KAPII. We wish them the best of luck in their important work.