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Islands: Microcosm of Our Water Planet

By Jean-Michel Cousteau and Holly S. Lohuis

Jean-Michel Cousteau with a hawksbill sea turtle. The success of the recovery projects of hawksbill sea turtles – and the other six species of endangered sea turtles found around the world – depends on many important conservation protection measures, including protecting their nesting sites on remote beaches, especially those found on healthy isolated islands throughout the tropics. Photos: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

On the clearest of days there is a sight on the horizon that beckons my curiosity of underwater exploration. It is the tiny island of Namenalala, Fiji, the location of some of my favourite dive sites in the world. With dive site names like Chimney’s and Grand Central Station, this tiny volcanic island is a treasure trove of beautiful underwater coral gardens, vertical walls of encrusting marine life, deep open ocean with sights of pelagic sharks, and carved out sand channels with huge groupers and marbled stingrays. These colourful, biological communities in the sea are a diver’s dream to discover. Namenalala Island is a place I regularly visit but like us all, I have been patiently waiting for Fiji and many other remote island nations around the world to start opening back up. 

What is it about islands that spark such a sense of exploration and discovery? The remoteness and isolation of many islands around the world has shaped the inhabitants both above and below the surface of the water. It is this familiar site of a small island on the horizon that excites me as I have come to appreciate the fragility of island ecosystems while seeking opportunities to explore their hidden undersea world. 

From my early adulthood experiences on Madagascar to my work in ecotourism and sustainable, environmental education in Fiji, filming a documentary in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to even looking out my kitchen window in Santa Barbara, CA out to the Northern Channel Islands; I have spent my life exploring some of the most populated to some of the most remote islands in the world. And each island destination has a recovery story to share. 

I have always said, “Everything is connected”: land to sea, humans to nature, people to other people, and the present is connected to the future. As I think about these vital connections I have come to learn about the growing body of scientific evidence that correlates healthy marine ecosystems to unaltered, or restored, invasive-species-free islands with robust populations of native plants, seabirds, and other wildlife. It is why when learning about the important efforts of island restoration projects I feel a sense of hope that diversity and harmony can coexist as we value the fragility of all living systems.

Underwater at Namena Island. Coral reefs are the most biologically diverse marine ecosystems yet they cover less than 1% of the world’s oceans. Photo courtesy: Ocean Futures Society

Isolated and vulnerable

Islands only make up approximately 5% of the earth’s land mass but are home to 20% of the world’s biodiversity. They are hotspots for biodiversity and home to rare species. These isolated landmasses and their surrounding near-shore marine ecosystems are home to many plant and animal species that are endemic—found nowhere else on Earth. These island ecosystems are irreplaceable treasures. 

But because of their isolation, island ecosystems are especially vulnerable to climate change, invasive species, and human disturbance because island species populations tend to be small, localized, and highly specialized.
It is why 41% of the world’s critically endangered and threatened plants and animals today are found on islands. 

Understanding the linkages between terrestrial and marine island environments helps us take conservation actions to protect the ecological connectivity between land and sea. New research shows that restoring islands is a win-win-WIN scenario with cascading benefits from native seabirds to coral reefs to human beings. For example, by removing invasive plants and animals from islands, seabirds are given a chance to rebound, which leads to an influx of nutrients (bird guano) to near-shore marine ecosystems. Healthier coral reefs mean greater resilience against climate change. And healthy coral reefs are vital to maintaining sustainable fishing and responsible ecotourism. But the benefits extend beyond just the island they surround—when fish have a healthy coral to protect them, they are able to grow large before venturing out to the sea where they may be sustainably harvested. This spill-over effect is a great example of the importance of connectivity of all living systems.

Namenalala Marine Reserve is a wonderful example of conservation success where seabirds are protected and the large barrier reef system around the tiny island is teeming with an array of coral reef species. Fiji is the soft coral capitol of the world. And after every dive at Namenalala Island my batteries are recharged. We must continue to use all means possible to best communicate our dependence of intact, healthy, diverse living systems, from fragile island ecosystems to our entire living planet. We are all a part of the intricate web of life. I can’t think of a more perfect place to take in the rich sights and sounds of nature, both above and below the surface of the sea, than traveling back home to Fiji. 

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