Coral Ecology and Conservation in French Polynesia

Scattered across the central South Pacific are the 118 islands and 84 atolls that make up French Polynesia.[1] These islands and atolls are grouped into five archipelagos, including the Society, Tuamotu, Gambier, Marquesas, and Austral Islands, that together have a total landmass of only 3,600 square kilometers.[2] However, French Polynesia does not end where its landmasses drop into the sea. Its territory extends into the open ocean, encompassing the surrounding five million square kilometers in the South Pacific.[3] These waters are home to wide array of corals that provide foundation for some of the most diverse, fragile, globally-important, and often overlooked ecosystems on Earth (Figure 1).

Figure 1. An image of a healthy coral reef located in the lagoon of Rangiroa, French Polynesia, an atoll island. Photo by E. Hickox, March 2014.

Political History
Delving into French Polynesia’s colonial history can provide context for the current status of environmental policy and conservation of coral reefs. In 1842, France claimed Tahiti as a protectorate and in 1880 claimed the entirety of the French Polynesian islands as a French colony.[4] In 1946, French Polynesia became an Overseas Country of France and was granted a Territorial Assembly. The statutory law, written legislation that can be amended,[5] outlines French Polynesia’s legal and institutional relationship with France. Over the past decades, statues have been amended and created to grant French Polynesia more control over local law. In 1984, with the passing of a new statue for self-governance, French Polynesia transitioned from an “overseas territory” to an “overseas country,” allowing French Polynesia to appoint its own president in addition to being administered by multiple ministers.[6] The Territorial Assembly holds legislative power and the President of the Territorial Government and Council of Ministers holds executive power.

Traditionally, French Polynesia sustained its economy on practices such as agriculture and lagoon fishing. However, this changed in the 1960s when France established the Pacific Nuclear Test Centre (CEP) and began to test nuclear weapons on several of the atolls.  The CEP shifted the resource-driven economy into one based on wages and services and relied on funding from France. The CEP was dismantled in 1998, but has had lasting impacts on French Polynesia’s expanding consumerism, urbanization, and coastal development, putting pressure on both the society and ecosystems.[7] In 2004, a new statute transitioned French Polynesia from a territory to its present-day status as an Overseas Country of France.[8] Additional background on French Polynesia’s government can be found here.

Environmental Policy
It was not until 1984 that the Statute for Self Government granted French Polynesia autonomy. This provision gave the local government control over its own environmental protection policies.[9] However, enforcement of regulations and legal proceedings still rests in the hands of the French Government, represented in the Territory by the High Commissioner of the Republic. In 1985, the Territorial Department of Environment was created to develop environmental policy with the objective of managing and protecting marine and terrestrial environments. There are also administrative services that regulate fisheries and aquaculture.[10] However, the government of France controlled the entire four million square kilometers of the islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone until a new statute was passed in 1996.[11] The EEZ is defined as a zone extending 200 nautical miles off the coastline of a state in which it has jurisdiction over natural resources.[12] This amended statute allowed French Polynesia to control its own administrative arrangements and regional cooperation agreements with neighboring Pacific countries.[13] With the shift in government, more of French Polynesia’s annual budget is now being set aside for environmental projects, including plans for developing a sewage infrastructure.  The European Union also promises additional funding.[14] However, there are gaps in conservation policy and enforcement that pose a risk to French Polynesia’s diverse coral reef ecosystems.

French Polynesia’s coasts and lagoons are home to 12,800 square kilometers of coral reef formations totaling more than 2,000 km in length.[15] Isolated by thousands of nautical miles from large human populations, French Polynesia’s reefs remain some of the most pristine in the world.[16] However, they are not immune to anthropogenic threats. They are facing mounting stress due to climate change, making them even more vulnerable to the negative impacts of coastal development.[17]

Ecological and Economic Importance of French Polynesia’s Coral Reefs
Due to French Polynesia's geologic history,[18] most of its reefs are fringing reefs, which form along the shoreline, and atoll reefs, which circle lagoons in a ring shape.[19] The main coral families found in French Polynesia are Acroporidae, Faviidae, and Agariciidae, with the dominant species in different regions depending on the geography of the reef.[20] Coral reefs create a globally-important ecosystem by supporting more species per unit area than any other marine environment.[21] Across the globe, reefs provide habitat for a diverse array of species, including algae, lobster, clams, seahorses, sponges, sea turtles, and charismatic megafauna such as sharks and dolphins.[22] In total, reefs are home to over two million marine species, including over 30% of all fish in the ocean [23](Figure 2), and scientists believe there may still be millions of undiscovered species that live in or around coral reefs.[24] Due to its isolation and complex geography, French Polynesia’s coral ecosystem is especially diverse, boasting the highest marine diversity in the world with up to 2,000 species being recorded on a single reef, including many native species found nowhere else in the world.[25]

Figure 2. A wide array of species live on the coral reef in the lagoon of Rangiroa, French Polynesia. Photo by E. Hickox, March 2014.

In addition to supporting a wide array of organisms, coral reefs also play an important role in sustaining adequate nutrients, such as nitrogen, that help support the entire marine food web.[26] They contribute to the maintenance of favorable water conditions by detoxifying and sequestering waste introduced into oceanic environments by humans[27] and are also highly interconnected with other near-shore ecosystems. For example, by acting as a buffer between ocean currents, wave energy, and coastlines, reefs create ideal conditions for mangroves and seagrass beds, both important coastal habitats.[28] They also provide important storm defenses by sheltering the coastline from wave action, mitigating erosion and loss of life and property, and protecting wetlands, ports, and harbors.[29] This is a service that is especially valuable to the relatively low lying French Polynesian islands and atolls.

In addition to being an invaluable ecological resource, coral reefs have significant economic, cultural, and social importance around the world. Coral reef ecosystem services can be broken up into three categories: tourism, coastal protection, and fisheries.[30] In French Polynesia, many people still rely on services provided by coral reefs to meet every day needs such as food, water, shelter, and medicine.[31] Coral reefs support fisheries as well as other food sources (i.e., mussels, crustaceans, sea cucumbers, and seaweeds) that provide basic sustenance and income[32] (Figures 3a-3b). Tahiti is the largest, most densely populated, and best-known French Polynesian island and boasts an array of tourist attractions that are reef-dependent.[33] Proof of this is found upon walking into the Pape’ete Tourism Office, where a vast array of hotel and excursion brochures boast attractions such as “coral gardens”[34] and “the greatest dive show on earth!”[35] World-class snorkeling and diving among French Polynesia’s reefs and lagoons is the foundation of the tourism industry, which brings in 10% of Tahiti’s GDP and employs 10% of its workers.[36] Finally, French Polynesia’s coral reefs have cultural significance, as management of coral reefs was traditionally community-based, fostering cooperation and the sharing of place-based knowledge among community members.[37]

Figure 3. (Top) Parrot fish, a common reef fish and food source in French Polynesia, for sale at a vendor’s stand in the market in Pape’ete, Tahiti.  (Bottom) A parrot fish swimming among Rangiroa's corals. Photos by E. Hickox and A. Cazeault, March 2014.

Threats to Coral Reefs
Unfortunately, the many resources that coral reefs provide are now at risk from both anthropogenic and natural sources. The first ever map-based assessment of possible threats to reef ecosystems around the world indicated that 30% of coral reefs, including some in French Polynesia, are threatened by coastal development.[38] Infrastructure construction along shorelines for housing, recreational facilities, and industry, especially in small island countries, makes coastal areas more prone to erosion.[39] Erosion transports sediment towards fringing coral reefs during heavy rain and storms, causing high rates of coral mortality due to an increase in seawater turbidity and reduction in sunlight that symbiotic zooxanthellae require for photosynthesis. In some extreme cases, sedimentation can even cause immediate death of corals as a result of smothering[40] (Figure 4).

Figure 4. A coral reef covered by a layer of sediment in Moorea, French Polynesia. Photo by E. Hickox, March 2014.

Tourism is a main driving force behind coastal development in French Polynesia.[41] The tourism industry started to boom in 1961 with the construction of Pape’ete International Airport on Tahiti, which was quickly followed by a flourishing hotel industry.[42] The number of yearly visitors to French Polynesia exceeded 80,000 by 1974,[43] and reached 160,000 per year in Tahiti alone by 2012.[44] The increase in new tourist accommodations in coastal areas not only increases the number of people living in these places, but also the amount of food resources required and the waste generated. Despite the efforts of the Ministry of the Environment to promote recycling, it is reported that even in Punaauia, the town nicknamed “the Golden Tortoise” by the Polynesian environment society, only 50% of the potential recyclables are collected.[45] In Tahiti, about 60,000 tons of non-recyclable waste is produced every year (comparable to mainland France) and unauthorized dumping sites have developed all over the island.[46] An official at the Department of Education in City Hall, Pape’ete, reported that there was no proper waste management system and regarded pollution as a major environmental concern of Tahiti.[47] He further added that it was impossible to farm without using fertilizers and pesticides in order to meet the island’s demand for food resources. Agricultural runoff containing chemicals from the farms, when coupled with runoff from erosion and landslides, changes the nutrient availability of the reef ecosystems when it enters the ocean[48] (Figure 5). This is exacerbated by the dumping of waste directly into the ocean or lagoons - a common practice caused by the lack of management.[49] Coral reefs are adapted to extremely low nutrient levels;[50] the addition of extra nutrients leads to algal blooms that decrease water clarity and block sunlight required by corals for photosynthesis.[51] The threats due to coastal development driven by the growing tourism industry present a conservation challenge that the government, local communities, and conservation organizations are striving to address.

Figure 5. Fruits and vegetables at the Pape'ete market that are grown and sold locally in French Polynesia. Photo by E. Hickox, March 2014.

Coral Conservation in French Polynesia
Traditionally, conservation and control of natural resources in the Pacific Islands was community based.[52] The end goal of resource management was to ensure that food and medicine stocks would not be depleted and would always be plentiful for future generations.[53] However, these management techniques have slowly been eroded with the shift to a more capitalistic economy. Now, lack of government funding and capacity is a significant barrier to resource management and conservation.[54] One solution to this was the creation of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP).[55] Formed by the governments of the Pacific region, SPREP focuses on protection and sustainable development of Pacific island resources. Its 2011-2015 Strategic Action Plan identifies four strategic priorities: climate change, biodiversity and ecosystem management, water management and pollution control, and environmental monitoring and governance.[56]

SPREP helped establish territorial reserves on two atolls in the Society Islands in 1992. As a result, the Marine Resources Division controls activities such as pearl culture and fishing, but proper enforcement is challenging.[57] In an effort to focus on coral reef conservation, the French Polynesian government is also working to establish Management Plans of Marine Areas (MPMAs). This process involves reaching a consensus among all stakeholders regarding restrictions on activities such as fishing, hotels, and aquatic activities.[58] With the support of SPREP, Bora-Bora and Moorea implemented management plans in 1998. The goal of the plans was to foster sustainable resource use and preserve threatened ecosystems, while involving all stakeholders in the process and creating amicable relationships among the parties. Management Plans for other areas including Fangatau, Fakahuna, Raiatea, Tahaa, Rangiroa, Makatea, Tikehau, Mataiva, and Fakarava islands are in the works.[59]

The Marquesas, an archipelago made up of thirteen islands, six of which are inhabited, provides a good example of another strategy that is being used on a regional level to promote conservation. Local government for the Marquesas is based in Nuku Hiva, the most populous of the islands. We met with three deputy mayors and a local councilor from Nuku Hiva, who spoke about the Marquesas’ six-year plan focusing on development, construction, and preservation. The preservation strategy includes initiatives such as increasing renewable resource use, protecting native species, and eliminating invasive species. According to the deputy mayors, they also hope to preserve marine zones by designating marine protected areas. There is currently one island in the southern part of the archipelago that is protected for educational purposes, and over the past few years, scientists have designated another island in the north to become a protected area. In order to establish this protected area, the Marquesan government is working to complete requirements to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, the mayors said this is a slow process, and lack of adequate financial resources still remains a challenge for conservation initiatives. In the face of such challenges, community involvement remains an important force, and the government holds community gatherings to facilitate collaboration and promote progress.[60]

The Future of Coral Conservation
The challenges that Nuku Hiva faces in developing protected areas are not unique. Adequate funding is a significant barrier to conservation efforts throughout French Polynesia[61] and when protected areas are designated, enforcement becomes the next big challenge.[62] Six years after the development of MPMAs for Moorea and Bora Bora, there were still no clear boundaries for the protected areas.[63] However, these challenges are not insurmountable, especially with local community collaboration in conservation efforts. As populations rise and the tourism industry spreads to previously isolated islands, coral reefs become increasingly vulnerable to extinction. Coral conservation remains critical to preserving an important traditional resource in French Polynesia, as well as maintaining biodiversity and marine ecosystem health around the world.

Emilie Hickox, Allegheny College
Sarah Hamilton, Colorado College
Nikesh Dahal, Colby-Sawyer College


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How to cite this entry:
Emilie Hickox, Sarah Hamilton and Nikesh Dahal. 2014. “Coral Ecology and Conservation in French Polynesia.” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems. Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. Web. [Date accessed] <html>