Overview of the main oceanic and coastal issues in French Polynesia
French Polynesia is composed of 118 islands, most of which are inhabited, spread over a territory of more than 5 millions square kilometers, including 15,000 square kilometers of reef and lagoons. This large oceanic area is both a treasure and a problem. France possesses the second largest maritime territory thanks to its island territories like New Caledonia and French Polynesia. However, size means that it is a difficult mission to control and make sure that laws are enforced everywhere. In French Polynesia, the government has set up a few maritime reserves, however, it is very difficult to monitor poaching and coastal degradations.
The main issues affecting biodiversity are related to human activities like the poaching of protected animals such as the green turtle. In Tahiti, the Washington treaty banning the catching, consuming, transporting and even turtle farming, is the only legal reference that allows the local authorities to protect the green turtle. However, as stated above, French Polynesia has a huge territory and insufficient means to be able to enforce the law effectively. Today the main threat to the survival of the turtles is poaching. There is a huge black market, and with the kilogram of turtle meat sold for over 6000 francs (60 USD), there is a big poaching temptation for people living off the sea in remote islands. The demand has been growing in past few years. Another threat is coastal modification. In high islands like Tahiti and Moorea, the yearn for land overlooking the lagoon has been a motivation for wall construction, and land fills on the coast, forever changing the shape of the few beaches turtles used to lay their eggs on.
The case of the turtle is one of the best examples of the problem surrounding the law enforcement and administrative incompetence.
Other animals are at risk. Sharks, once revered (just like the turtle), are now on the brink of being highly threatened. Long liners are their main enemies. Although sharks have been on the protected animals list, and fishing them is forbidden, accidental catches are never taken into account. Moreover, there is a black market for shark fins “accidentally caught in nets” of tuna fishing boats.
The presence of Japanese and sometimes Chinese boats in our water makes it even easier for poachers to sell their produces.
The Tuna, albacore, red eye, yellow fin and the blue fin are also highly threatened throughout the Pacific. A few years ago the government accepted contracts from Japanese tuna fishing fleets. Quotas have been voted, but there is almost no control on the amount of the catches. Instead of delivering their catch in port, some of the fishing boats do it at sea, and no control is possible.
As a boomerang effect, instead of pushing the preservation efforts for a more sustainable tuna industry, the government, who owns half of the tuna fishing fleet of French Polynesia, pushes everyone, including consumers, to buy and eat tuna (regardless of diminishing stocks and the health related issues due to rich tuna and pelagic fish diet).
There are of course other species to be considered, but the turtle, the sharks, and the tuna are highly at risk.
Moruroa and Fangataufa are two atolls that have been used by the French army to test their nuclear weapons. From 1966 to 1996, 46 atmospheric and 147 underground atomic tests were conducted. Today, one of the main issues, besides the health ones, resides in the nuclear waste lying under these two atolls. Much of it is simply in the coral ground and merely covered with concrete. A method not even legal if we were to look at European Community standards for nuclear waste management. Parts of the atolls are sinking and cracks have been identified, but the French government still denies any risks of pollution, but for how many years, how many generations?
Although French Polynesian reefs are in fairly good shape, threats exists and the corals are at risk. Besides natural reasons such as hurricanes, the warming up of the ocean is certainly the biggest threat.
The Acanthaster planci is a natural coral predator. There are season when this star fish lays eggs and the high peak of population arise in February/March. The main predator of the Acanthaster is the green and the hawksbill turtle, both endangered. One of the factor helping the development of the Acanthaster, in its plankton state, is the dirt sediments found in lagoons or around the coastline after heavy rains. This phenomenon is aggravated by cuts in the mountainside.
Lots of areas have been polluted due to dirt in suspension at the surface of the water. In some very affected areas, used for agriculture, like in Cook’s Bay, Moorea, the coral reef has been greatly damaged.
Throwing plastic bags, tires and sometimes old batteries overboard is not shocking to some people. In lagoons in the vicinity of Papeete several tons of garbage were taken out of the water this year only. Using the ocean as a dump is pretty common for a lot of people who abide by the “don’t see don’t care” philosophy. On the atoll of Tetiaroa, in 2007, during merely 2 days, 10 volunteers (including myself) participated in a beach clean up during which we took out more than 15 cubic meters of trash of all sorts (plastic being the most bountiful). We estimated that about the same amount remained on some of the islets, but because of our few hands we could not clean everything up.
The biggest challenge is educating our people properly. This has been done mainly through NGOs, and there are many on the main islands of Tahiti, Moorea and Raiatea, but few or none, in outer islands. It is one goal that we want to achieve, using Faafaite as a way to educate on an environmental level the populations in remote islands. Even though most islands are far away from the main port and airport, the “modern” world has reached nearly every island and the results are not always positive.