BY ALFRED PAGEPITU
MARINE life in many parts of the Western province are facing the threat of an invading force of Crown of Thorns (COT) starfish.
Once thriving coral reefs in many parts of the province are now reduced to ‘deserts’ of white calcified structures, leaving many reef juvenile reef fish species vulnerable to predators.
Capacity Development/Project Manager of WWF Solomon Island, Gizo Field Office Jessica Rutherford said, “We are currently experiencing an explosion of COT in the Western Province. This has been a recent event, which started just after the last category 2 cyclone we had experienced, which happened about 3 weeks ago.
“There have been very low tides, and during the last cyclone we had over 1 meter of rain in 4 days. So there was a lot of runoff.
“I was wondering if there is anything we could be doing? There is a local Dive shop (Dive Gizo) who has been hiring local to collect the COTs and they are burying them on the beach. This seems to be the main practice here, as this appears to be the cheapest option.”
“People are saying they have never seen COTs in these numbers. We have compiled some awareness materials to try to make villages aware of the problem. However, I am not convincing that our efforts will be of any result.”
Meanwhile, local business man, owner of the Gizo Dive Shop, Danny Kennedy, tells Island Sun that his boys have collected hundreds of COT in their attempt to help the corals.
“The Crown of Thorn (starfish) COT eat and kill all the corals. Carlson Eddie and Uke asked to go out last night and try it at night.
“They collected another 136 during an evening snorkel and during the day in an area they thought would have many collected more than one hundred.
“We have to keep going until the numbers reduce dramatically and the more we look the more we see.
“Honestly, if local communities, Western Provincial government, stakeholders, NGOs and Solomon Islands National Government just continue to sit around and talk about conservation and do nothing, they [COT] will eat every piece of live coral from Shortland island to Tikopia.
“Everybody just talks about tourism but no action takes place to eradicate the spreading of COTS.”
Mr. Kennedy believes that COT is the biggest threat to long term food security, livelihoods and the future of tourism in Solomon Islands.
A Mr Peter Doherty explains that the COT are generally two years old or more before they spend most of their time on the reef surface having major impacts on coral cover.
He said Australia is now experiencing the fourth cycle of starfish outbreaks on the GBR since the 1960s. Outbreak populations appeared in 2011/12 and these can be linked with a switch from anomalously dry to anomalously wet summers starting in 2008/09.
He explained that since 2012, the Australian Government has spent more than $15 million to eradicate less than 400,000 starfish.
“This has not had a big impact given that we estimate the current population of large starfish to exceed 5 million (with many more smaller ones still hiding in the reef matrix). My point in giving you these depressing figures is to show that hand control is ineffective at anything greater than a local area.
“The size of that area depends on available effort underwater divers, frequency of return visits given that each large starfish kills an area of coral similar to its body size every day. A few divers even when returning on a regular basis can only defend a relatively small area of coral from a serious COTS outbreak because of the need to detect and remove starfish on a continuous basis.
“I assume that Dive Gizo is doing this for its favourite sites and this is appropriate.
“The Australian tourism industry is equipping SCUBA divers with lethal injections to kill starfish in-situ. Given the cost of labour in the Solomon Islands, this may not add a lot of value.
“While collection and disposal on land is very inefficient, and effective only for the defence of very small areas of reef, it may be enough for the purposes of Dive Gizo. In Vanuatu, the starfish are converted to garden compost but I suspect that this works only where soils are nutrient deficient (eg atolls), which is hardly the case on volcanic islands.”