In the island of Aitutaki, Cook Islands, efforts are underway to reverse the major declines in important marine resources caused by a combination of climate-driven and human-derived stressors.
Livelihoods in the outer islands are closely tied to the natural environment and fisheries resources are the most important source of food security and income. Coral reefs provide critical habitat for many marine organisms and recent research indicates that coral cover in Aitutaki is very low.
The Aitutaki Marine Research Centre (AMRC) was opened in 1991, with financial aid from Australia’s AusAid program, following a request from the Aitutaki Island Council for Ministry of Marine Resource’s (MMR) help in restoring clam stocks in the lagoon. At that time the main function of the AMRC, or “hatchery” as it has become known, was clam aquaculture.
Three species from Palau and Australia were introduced, Tridacna gigas, Tridacna derasa, and Hippopus hippopus. Besides these introduced species, the hatchery has also been successful in reproducing Cook Island’s native species, Tridacna maxima.
The clams raised have either been placed in the lagoon to begin spawning naturally, or have been sold to commercial aquarium markets as a way of funding the program. Tourism operators frequent these popular lagoon areas. The clams are a protected species under Ra’ui, which is the Maori term for protection or stewardship.
Over the years the role of the hatchery has increased as scope of MMR’s work in the Cook Islands has expanded. This now ranges from turtle rescue to enforcement and compliance of marine resource regulations and from water quality monitoring to provision of an educational and visitor resource centre.
Since 2019, the European Union funded Global Climate Change Alliance Plus - Scaling up Pacific Adaptation (GCCA+ SUPA) project is working closely with communities and the Cook Islands government to adopt a people-centred approach to strengthen data collection, reporting and adaptive management within the marine sector and improve the understanding of climate-related issues and the impacts on the marine environment. Over the next 2 years the technical capacity and infrastructure of the AMRC will be upgraded in order to:
· Increase capacity for climate focussed monitoring, research and adaptive management of marine systems
· Expand marine monitoring programs
· Increase awareness and education and enhance the community outreach roles of the AMRC
· Reduce reliance on Rarotonga for personnel and resources
Planned activities include incorporating latest best practices into aquaculture management, the creation of a lagoonarium to increase education and awareness among both the local and tourist communities and the installation of classrooms at the hatchery to support capacity development of fisheries officers and research students. The development of technical capacity and long-term integration of activities will be essential to the sustainability of the AMRC and its programmes beyond the life of this project.
The GCCA+ SUPA project is about scaling up climate change adaptation measures in specific sectors supported by knowledge management and capacity building. The 4.5 year project (2019-2023) is funded with € 14.89 million from the European Union (EU) and implemented by the Pacific Community (SPC) in partnership with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and The University of the South Pacific (USP), in collaboration with the governments and peoples of Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Tonga and Tuvalu.