September 14, 2021

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Header image: Kudo Kabua

WOTHO ATOLL, MARSHALL ISLANDS (September 14th, 2021)


In the middle of the central Pacific Ocean lies the Wotho Atoll, a string of 13 islands in the Republic of Marshall Islands. Beyond its idyllic coastal breeze, Wotho is known locally for its beautiful beaches, turtle nesting sites, extensive bird populations and colorful corals. The atoll is also very remote – as one of the least inhabited of the Marshall Islands, Wotho is home to just 90 Marshallese.

 

(c) Matt Gerber

 

Wotho Atoll has been declared a Hope Spot by international marine conservation nonprofit Mission Blue. Kitlang Kabua, Minister of Education of the Marshall Islands and Matthew Gerber, local high school biology teacher, are the Hope Spot Champions and have received approval from the King and Land Owner to dedicate the entire atoll for protection and conservation. 

Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue says, “The Marshall Islands occupy a very special place in human history, but also in caring for the ocean. Wotho Atoll is renowned for its beautiful reefs. The fact that you are willing to step up and protect this land and to designate the waters around Wotho as a safe place for the animals who live there is truly a symbol of hope and cause for celebration. I wholeheartedly endorse your efforts, and Mission Blue and I personally will do whatever we can to support you in this endeavor. This is a critical time in history. We are seeing decline all over the world of the natural systems. But with care, they can recover.”

 

 

Matthew Gerber, Hope Spot Champion and high school marine biology teacher on Wotho Island says, “This part of the world is so full of beauty and still possesses many of the unique qualities found in untouched ecosystems. It is a joy to bring attention to these amazing places and help maintain the marine world here. The Marshall Islands and Wotho Atoll is exactly the kind of place in the ocean that needs to be protected.”

 

 
Giant clam (Tridacnagigas) (c) Matt Gerber

 

David Kabua, President, Republic of the Marshall Islands says, “Wotho has one of the smallest populations in the Marshall Islands today, however, we are entrenched in culture and tradition which highlights the importance of sustainability and preservation. Protection of our wildlife and environment is paramount to the people of Wotho.”

Wotho Atoll is found inside a huge shark sanctuary – it covers 768,547 square miles, nearly four times the landmass of the state of California. The sanctuary was created in 2011 to prevent all commercial fishing of sharks and is enforced with fines for violations. The Shark Sanctuary was one of the first of its kind and motivated many similar actions throughout the Pacific. It is a symbol of pride for the country and area. The shark sanctuary is the only protected area set up of its scale inside the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Kabua and Gerber seek to have the Hope Spot marked for national protection as the second marine protected area in the country.

 

Grey reef shark (carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) (c) Heather Miller

 

Kitlang Kabua, Hope Spot Champion, says, “This is a country that is feeling the effects of climate change in major ways. They see the impacts of pollution, and they know that dwindling fisheries will impact them directly.” She continues, “There are many challenges here. Yet, in the face of these challenges, there are also reasons to hope.” Kabua hopes that further conservation efforts will strengthen the local ecotourism industry, creating jobs and a reinvigorated sense of duty to the environment for residents and tourists alike. Kitlang was elected to the Legislature for the Marshall Islands in 2018 and is the youngest person ever to be elected.

 

(c) Heather Miller

 

Gerber’s students have been working for several years to increase awareness of environmental issues in the Republic of the Marshall Islands and believe that the Hope Spot designation can be an important step for the country. His students worked on several aspects of the Hope Spot nomination, including communication with local and national government officials and some of the research of the marine environment at Wotho Atoll.

 

Beach clean up (c) Matt Gerber

 

For a recent class project, Gerber’s students measured coral bleaching amounts. They found very little, as most of the corals were already dead. Yet, growing amongst the algae-covered skeletons were uncountable numbers of tiny, baby corals. “My students couldn’t quit talking about the numbers of baby corals they saw growing. This was the hopefulness they wanted to grab a hold of”, Gerber describes. “This Hope Spot will be like those baby corals. It can trigger a wave of conservation in this country. Young Marshallese are passionate about their blue backyards and this can build upon that momentum.”

 

Grey reef shark (carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) among corals (c) Heather Miller

 

Litokne Kabua, 12th Grade Student at Kwajalein High School says, “The Hope Spot will be a success for all of us, it gives us hope that the future of our ocean and way of life is in good hands.”

Kabua’s and Gerber’s plans for protecting the Wotho Atoll include creating a turtle protection zone with the aim of outlawing all hunting of turtles and development around nesting sites. Kabua describes the need to safeguard the local turtle populations. “Turtles are infrequently harvested at the command of the chiefs, but people are starting to understand the risk of over harvesting them. Turtles are closely linked to Marshallese culture. The locals used to harvest for anyone who would pay. Luckily, there are now regulations from the traditional side that ask them to stop.” However, traditional guidelines have not been incorporated in the law, and Kabua and Gerber plan to change that. They also seek to convert a traditionally-held bird sanctuary into a legally protected area that can be enforced. These sites exist in various locations throughout the Marshall Islands and are known as Mó, or preservation sites, in Marshallese. This area is well known as a nesting site and this will increase the ability to formally protect those areas. 

 

Green sea turtle (Cheloniamydas) (c) Heather Miller

 

Mike Kabua is the landowner and King of the atoll. He is representative and the iroojlaplap for Wotho and supports the creation of the Hope Spot and the push towards greater conservation.

Michael LaMañiñi Kabua, Iroojlaplap, Senator, Republic of the Marshall Islands says, “This will continue the work of the Marshall Islands to preserve our ecosystems and inspire future generations of Marshallese.  It will be very impactful to the coral reefs and all the amazing creatures that call Wotho Atoll home.”

 

(c) Heather Miller

 

Kabua and Gerber’s other goals for the Hope Spot include creating and enforcing a no-take zone around the Wotho Atoll to shield the area from commercial fishing. They also seek to support the government in their plans to ban plastic bags and other products to help mitigate the plastic pollution problem that has plagued countless coastal communities around the world. In the Marshall Islands, some coral reefs are doing well, while others struggle. Gerber says, “We want to create a location designated for coral protection and coral restoration projects, including a large coral nursery.” 

Gerber says, “We want to work with the Marshall Islands government and the goals they have for sustainability. We are eager to partner and do what we can.” He adds, “Young people especially are the key to driving a healthy future for the atoll and all of the Marshall Islands. They have a deep love and sense of stewardship for the ocean. I believe that the young people here are the future.”

Click here to explore the interactive StoryMap, hosted on Esri.

 

(c) Lyla Lemari
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