Bleaching and other emerging issues faced by coral reefs were highlighted by the U.S. All Islands Coral Reef Committee at the 34th U.S. Coral Reef Task Force Meeting in Fajardo, Puerto Rico last week.
In a report to the task force, AIC, of which the CNMI is a member, presented an update on their activities, accomplishments, and emerging issues.
Fran Castro, director of the CNMI Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality’s Division of Coastal Resources Management who chairs the AIC, reported that their jurisdictions and islands have faced extraordinary events that have impacted coral reefs and strained their resources and capacity.
“The strong El Niño has resulted in both increased storm activity as well as substantial coral bleaching,” Castro said. “The jurisdictions have seen coral bleaching on reefs just barely recovering from last year’s bleaching event.”
In the CNMI, AIC reported that coral reef resources were severely impacted by consecutive thermal stress events in 2013 and 2014. Approximately 85 percent of staghorn corals in the Saipan Lagoon have died as indicated by recent surveys.
The report added that low diversity, shallow-water coral assemblages across the remote Northern Islands suffered similar fates.
Typhoon Soudelor, which made a direct hit on Saipan last August, also had an impact on coral reefs.
“Preliminary assessments indicate that while some reefs were severely impacted by the storm, damage appear to be highly spatially heterogeneous. In addition to damage from wave energy, the storm resulted in one ship grounding on coral reef habitat and damage to seagrass habitat were incurred from various storm related debris,” the report said.
Guam, which also experienced two consecutive bleaching events in 2013 and 2014, may experience another one this year depending on storm activity, according to the report.
In American Samoa, scientists are predicting coral bleaching and coral death this season—a further blow from the major harm already caused by a longline fishing vessel running aground in Nuuuli in May. American Samoa also continues to address the ongoing outbreak of crown of thorns starfish, which are a voracious eater of coral reefs.
Hawaii also experienced another summer of significant bleaching as early as September as a result of water temperatures up to 91° F, while the U.S. Virgin Islands continue to deal with a large influx of Sargassum seaweed and an increase in the invasive Halophila stipulate.
South Florida, on the other hand, is currently experiencing an unprecedented outbreak of coral diseases leading to significant mortality of multiple coral species over 165 square miles of the Florida Reef Tract. Severe coral bleaching is also being documented due to a second year of unusually warm water.
“We must work together to make a difference now,” Castro urged the task force.
AIC said they are in the process of finalizing their strategic plan for the next five years, which will be available this month.
The committee is also working on a draft internal Action Plan intended to be a dynamic working document, which they hope to finalize by early 2016.