The Pacific’s future: ‘It’s either rats or reefs’ | Climate Crisis

Do you remember the distant South Pacific island where Tom Hanks’ character was stranded within the 2000 film Solid Away? That’s Monuriki, in my country of Fiji.

While some people might remember it for its Hollywood association, the small, uninhabited island has other claims to fame. In 2011 the island’s Indigenous owners — the village of Yanuya — and a consortium of partners led by the National Trust of Fiji and an area NGO, Mareqeti Viti, successfully removed invasive rats and goats from Monuriki to guard its critically endangered endemic Fijian crested iguana.

We all know that invasive species are the leading drivers of biodiversity loss (pdf) within the Pacific, but also they are having a serious impact on the power of island ecosystems and communities to adapt to the consequences of climate change.

Pacific Island countries are among the many world’s most vulnerable to climate change: Six of them figure within the 20 nations most in danger, including Vanuatu and Tonga, that are ranked first and second. Our “Blue Pacific Continent” is home to over 10 million people in 21 Pacific Island countries and territories in diverse communities and cultures. And plenty of of us realise that sustaining more resilient natural ecosystems will function as our first line of defence against the impacts of climate change.

We are actually rapidly learning that our efforts to regulate invasive species are also helping to extend the resilience of Pacific Island communities in unexpected ways. Research on islands in Fiji and the Indian Ocean shows that eradicating rats will help to extend the health and productivity of threatened coral reefs, by allowing seabird populations to rebuild.

Efforts to revive seabird populations also increase the degrees of nutrients and nitrogen from their guano, which in turn improves the health of the reefs and their resilience to coral bleaching and cyclones. Studies have shown that the biomass of fish on coral reefs next to an island of seabirds was 48 percent higher than with an inland infested with rats.

These rat-free reefs can provide our communities with greater sources of protein from coastal fisheries and function vital buffers against extreme weather events. A latest study in August within the journal Nature concluded that initiatives to regulate mammalian predators are amongst probably the most effective tools for restoring the resilience of natural island ecosystems.

Since 2010 there have been over 30 successful rat eradications in small, uninhabited islands right across the Pacific region. Amongst those efforts was the 2011 removal of rats from the uninhabited Palmyra Atoll between Hawaii and American Samoa, which resulted in a 5,000 percent increase in native plant seedlings, the recovery of its coral reefs and substantial increases in two previously undocumented crab species.

In 2023 Tonga will undertake a $1m project to remove rats from the uninhabited Late Island, which will likely be the biggest ever predator eradication initiative undertaken within the Pacific region. Similar attempts on inhabited islands will likely be much tougher and these costs can be within the tens of thousands and thousands of dollars. That’s why we want to urgently scale up investment in our efforts to regulate invasive species equivalent to rats, weeds and ants – measures that the Pacific islands know work well.

The Pacific region would greatly profit from the ambition of an initiative like Africa’s Great Green Wall, a $20bn project which is geared toward halting the southward advance of the Sahara. It’s doing so by restoring 150 million hectares of native vegetation across 7,800km (4,847 miles) and 11 countries, creating vital jobs and protecting the livelihoods of 100 million people.

I feel the Pacific region needs its own Great Green Line of Defence, where increased investment within the control of invasive species across an expanding variety of islands could directly help to extend the climate resilience of natural ecosystems and communities. Increasing investment in managing invasive species may even generate “green” jobs via greater ecotourism opportunities and the potential for greater investment in community-based conservation efforts.

The United Nations COP27 conference in Egypt in November, with its emphasis on climate adaptation along with the reduction of emissions, could help solidify efforts to finance these actions, which we want to construct the resilience of our most vulnerable communities.

Because the director general of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) I’m proud that we host the Pacific Regional Invasive Species Management Support Service (PRISMSS). This can be a partnership that brings together key global experts in the sector and works with countries like Tonga to design progressive projects and construct the local capability needed to undertake this difficult work on the bottom.

So far, much of this work has been funded by partners equivalent to the Global Environment Facility and the federal government of Recent Zealand. The variation focus of COP27 may now provide us with a key opportunity to attempt to secure the broader investment support we want to scale up the management of invasive species in our Blue Pacific region.

The evidence is evident: Picking reefs over rats will help construct greater resilience for our Pacific communities. In a world beset with seemingly insurmountable challenges, the ambition and hope offered by a possible Great Green Line of Defence deserve the world’s support.

The views expressed in this text are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.


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