Young Māori Divers Hunt Invasive Crown-of-thorns Starfish to Save Coral Reefs

Environmental News from Cook Islands

  • The island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands is experiencing an outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish (taramea, Acanthaster planci), which could jeopardize the survival of its surrounding coral reef.
  • Local environmental organization Kōrero O Te `Ōrau has been tackling the outbreak since 2020 by training young Māori people in scuba diving and running regular expeditions to remove taramea from the reef and bury them inland.
  • The work has contained the outbreak on two sides of the island by collecting over 3,700 crown-of-thorns starfish, ultimately mitigating its impact on reef health. However, ongoing efforts are required.
  • The project is also upskilling young Cook Islanders in marine management theory and practice.

Every Saturday, a group of Cook Islands Māori youth slide into scuba gear, grab sticks from the ironwood trees (Casuarina equisetifolia) growing along Rarotonga’s beachfront, and head to the reef surrounding the island. Their mission; to dive for invasive taramea (crown-of-thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci).

Adult taramea span 25-35 centimeters (10-14 inches) and are densely encrusted with sharp, venomous thorns. To eat, they slide their stomachs out through their mouths to digest the coral’s living tissue. When there are too many of them in an area, the rich colors and textures of a healthy reef are replaced by a dull seascape of coral skeletons, where few other species can survive.

Underwater, when the divers spot one of these coral-consuming predators, they slide their stick underneath to dislodge it, stow it in a mesh bag, and continue the hunt.

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Source: Mongabay

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