An ongoing project to survey Aitutaki's lagoon is set to help its island council manage the lagoon, as well as benefit from eco-tourism.
The Aitutaki Lagoon Monitoring Project teaches eco-tourists how to survey and collect data on the lagoon, with the findings reported back to the Aitutaki Island Council.
The project is run by the Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative and its director, Stephen Lyon, spoke to Leilani Momoisea about what the eco-volunteers learn and how the project works.
STEPHEN LYON: At the beginning of the expedition they come in and they learn survey techniques under the guidance of a science officer. We learn techniques to survey for coral cover, for benthic cover, for invertebrates - so that includes things like clams, sea cucumbers, sea urchins. We also learnt how to do fish counts, so swimming along and counting different types of fish along a transect. And these are all standard scientific methods that are used to monitor the marine environment. Then we go out and we do actual surveys at a number of sites around the reef.
LEILANI MOMOISEA: So these are people that don't have any experience in this sort of thing?
SL: That's right. We have a range of people that come in. Some people come in and they've got a serious science background. Other people come in and they haven't done any science before at all. But of course anybody can learn the techniques as long as they're able to learn to dive and are patient to go through the training and confident to get out and apply that.
LM: And what's been learnt so far?
SL: The Aitutaki lagoon has got a variety of different habitats and different environments. In the southern part of the lagoon where there's very few islands - an area called Long Reef - there's really nice clean, clear water coming over and healthy coral populations, a lot of fish life and so on. And further north, as you move up to the Aitutaki lagoon where there's more land influence and things like that we see more algae dominating, the water isn't as clear and that sort of thing. So we've already noticed generalisations in the lagoon and as we start to analyse the data we'll learn more about it. But the real strength of this project is its long-term application. Because we'll be using teams to survey the lagoon several times a year, as this works through year after year, we're going to generate a really solid, long-term data set to help the island council manage their lagoon.
LM: And is this locals or is this mainly a tourism push?
SL: It's both. We use tourists to do the work, but of course we also invite locals into the project if they want to come on board and learn, as well. But at the moment it's generally using eco-tourists to do the work.
LM: So it's not just environmental benefits? Does it also benefit the local community in terms of tourist dollars?
SL: Very much so. In fact, when we structured the programme we ensured that all of the revenue that comes in is spent in the local community. So the Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative is a non-profit organisation. We look to run the project at cost, but of course we have to pay for things like accommodation, boat hire and scuba tank bills, transport, food, et cetera. And we spent all of that within local businesses.
Stephen Lyon says they hope to run about four expeditions, ranging from two to six weeks long, each year.