Micronesia: Little islands, big conservation results
By Simon Ellis
Micronesia — literally, “tiny islands” — is a region of the Pacific Ocean that many people in western countries have never heard of. The islands of Micronesia are indeed quite small, but many of them are spectacularly beautiful. They are also home to vibrant cultures and extremely valuable wildlife habitats. And the entire region is huge, occupying most of the western Pacific above the equator. It includes the countries and territories of Kiribati, Nauru, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and Republic of Palau.
Seacology has active projects in the Marshall Islands, FSM and Palau. Together these island states have a vast combined sea surface area of 2.2 million square miles (for reference, the contiguous 48 United States take up 3.1 million square miles), comprising 2,100 islands. But their land mass totals only 517 square miles, with a combined population of just 192,000 people. The communities of this trio of “micro” nations have strong, culturally rooted conservation ethics. Working with Seacology, communities have implemented dozens of projects that today protect around 100,000 marine acres and 3,400 acres of terrestrial habitat.
The small human populations and geographical remoteness of most of Micronesia has left much of its environment intact. That means its communities have the opportunity to preserve some of the most pristine environments left on the planet. Palau, the westernmost part of Micronesia, has the highest biodiversity in the region and sits on the northeastern margin of the “Coral Triangle.” It is home to more than 500 species of corals and 1,200 species of reef fishes. The Marshall Islands, at the eastern end of the region, still has an impressive 300+ species of corals and more than 500 species of fishes. The Marshall Islands is also home to one of the largest atolls in the world, Kwajalein, as well as Bikini atoll, which is, sadly, well known for the nuclear testing conducted there in the 1950s. The resulting contamination has made it uninhabitable ever since.
All of Seacology’s Micronesia projects have had significant benefits for the environment and communities. For example, uninhabited Ahnd Atoll, just 12 miles off the coast of the main island of Pohnpei (in the FSM) is home to more than 350 species of hard corals and 800 species of fishes. In 2014, Seacology supported the creation of four new marine protected areas, totaling 8,400 acres. Seacology funded a solar power system to power radar for the local ranger station, which houses rangers who patrol the area for poachers. The family who owns the atoll has since expanded the no-take areas around the island, effectively closing down fishing of any sort. Conservation of this huge marine area, so close to the main island of Pohnpei, ensures protection of large spawning populations of commercially important fishes and invertebrates. This is invaluable for the long-term economic success of all of the communities in Pohnpei.
Lake Ngardok in Palau is Seacology’s largest terrestrial project in Micronesia. This 1,235-acre reserve was funded in 2006 and encompasses Micronesia’s largest freshwater lake. The lake is home to the endangered Palau grey duck and saltwater crocodile, as well as the endemic Palau flycatcher and Palau fruit dove. Seacology funded the construction of a visitor center and endemic plant nursery, which are still in use today supporting conservation activities in the area.
Long-term successes are our goal, so we’re grateful that these projects are still protecting Micronesian environments and cultures. But new environmental threats pop up all the time, so we’re always looking at new ways to combat them. One of our latest projects in Micronesia will protect a beautiful shoreline from dredging that could smother the coral reef, home to teeming marine life. There’s nothing micro about those results!
Field Representative Simon Ellis has represented Seacology in the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands since 2004.