(Office of the CNMI Governor) — Kicking off a series of meetings and ongoing dialogue between Washington, D.C. officials and state representatives, Gov. Ralph D.L.G. Torres addressed members of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force during their 35th annual meeting in the nation’s capital.
In continued efforts to protect and preserve the commonwealth’s coral reefs, address climate change and ocean acidification and consider institutionalizing the Coral Fellows Program to invigorate and pique the interest of future coral reef managers in the jurisdictions, Torres expressed continued sentiments of the late Gov. Eloy Inos’ strong support and leadership in the conservation and management of our coral reef ecosystems.
“Coral reefs are very important to our economy, our communities and our way of life, and it is my obligation to continue in this path to protect our resources for the benefit of present and future generations,” he said.
Torres commended the ongoing efforts of the U.S. All Islands Committee and the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation program to find opportunities to increase federal-jurisdictional integration towards positive resource outcomes.
Currently NOAA has numerous offices that work with coral reefs such as the Coral Reef Conservation Program, Marine Protected Areas, Coastal Services Center, Pacific Services Center, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Fisheries Science Centers and Fisheries Management Councils.
“Given the steady decline of our coral reefs, the integration of the federal-jurisdictional partnership is key to effective and efficient progress towards coral reef sustainability in our islands. While this partnership with NOAA is the first stride, I also encourage other members of the task force to identify ways in which your agencies can begin to strengthen our relationships for the benefit of our reefs and those who depend on them,” he said.
Torres further noted the collaboration between the task force and the All Islands Committee surrounding the coral Endangered Species Act, which resulted in the listing and protection of endangered corals.
Torres, however, added that many challenges have not been addressed at the federal level to ensure that island economies would not be burdened with inadequate capacity to efficiently manage these new requirements.
“Climate change and ocean acidification continue to be imminent threats to our coral reefs and are some of the main reasons for coral reef decline. Greenhouse gas emissions are a major driver of this phenomenon, and we need to consider possible solutions or policies to put in place. In the CNMI, we have completed vulnerability assessments for Saipan, Rota and Tinian while piloting the implementation of climate adaptation in the CNMI through integration of ‘climate-smart’ strategies with existing Conservation Action Plans, and working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs to build upon previous efforts by focusing on the ability of infrastructure, communities, and the environment to adapt to climate change in our islands,” he said.
Reiterating the advocacy of the late Gov. Eloy Inos for the Coral Fellows Program, Torres urged the task force to continue to explore ways to institutionalize the program adding that cross agency assistance of the task force with the CNMI government in conserving precious coral reef resources while supporting a strong partnership with the Department of Defense is needed.
“I believe people of the CNMI can benefit from this opportunity but only if we use all the available technical expertise of both the federal and local government to ensure the CNMI maintains their quality of life while gaining economic and social opportunities. This includes maintaining the natural resources that protect the island and provide valuable food resources is woven into our culture and drives our tourism economy,” he stated.
Presently, current issues in the federal-jurisdiction partnership include increasing participation among federal partners to the task force, the pursuit of critical habitat designation for endangered coral species, climate change predictions for 25, 50, 75 and up to 100 years, ensuring available funding for initiatives, and strengthening of the Coral Fellowship Program to build coral reef management capacity.
The Coral Reef Task Force in conjunction with the All Islands Committee or AIC was established in 1998 under Presidential Executive Order No. 13089 to effectively manage and protect the ecological, social and economic value of coral reef ecosystems for present and future generations. The AIC is made up of Point of Contacts under members of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force who provide communications and outreach to fulfill strategic plan priorities.
Members of the task force include NOAA Assistant Administrator Eileen Sobeck, Department of the Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs Lori Faeth, along with federal agency partners and state/territory members such as the territory of Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the state of Florida, the state of Hawaii and nonvoting members of the Republic of Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.