COT Cleanup Report North Efate

Hi Olgeta,

Although we haven't put out any COTs Reports since December, that doesn't mean we have stopped our *War on the Aliens*.  We are still going out most Saturdays with scuba divers.
Fairly regular Cruises to Paul's Rock mean that we can also remove incoming COTs when they come within 100 metres of the base of the Rock. So about 15 a week are bagged and left underwater to dump on the following Cruise.
They are still moving down the coast from Tukutuku Point towards Havannah Harbour, but the larger aggregations have bypassed Paul's Rock or we have taken them out.  So far, about 5000 removed in the past 6 months.

Our feeling is that if we can stop their movement along this coastline before they get to Mangaliliu Village,  we minimise the spawning of a second generation of Crown Of Thorns Starfish  in this area.   So far we are achieving these aims,  but a little too slowly.  To speed things up, we would need to employ extra niVanuatu scuba divers to help us, but would need external financial assistance to enable this.  Our costs in this campaign are already quite high, running a boat, providing filled scuba tanks and gear,  bus transfers from town and  lunches for all on board.

Last Saturday,  23 March, we had a team of 4 scuba divers from Big Blue Dive and Sailaway Dive, plus the 2 x supportive boat crew.  (pics at bottom)

First dive was to locate the large herd seen previously between Sivir Beach and Paul's Rock.  We collected only 2 bags = 25 COTs.  But we found a large aggregation further to the South.
Second dive, we filled a further 10 bags = 130 COTs.  They were mainly hiding by day in crevices and under ledges, so were a bit time consuming to coax out.  Those 155 COTs were dumped ashore by the crew.  (see pic)
Many hundreds more remain in that area in 15 to 25 metre depths, so that will be our primary target next Saturday.
Third dive, late afternoon was to the shoreward side of Paul's Rock, where we collected a further 4 bags = 50 COTs  and left those underwater.       So total for the day = about 200 COTs.

ANOTHER COTs PROBLEM      As mentioned in a previous Report #4   on 5 December:

Snorkellers off Manuro shoreline on the East coast of Efate have noticed  an influx of COTs in the last 2 weeks.  They seem to be coming down from the North in depths from 8m to 15 m,  a similar depth-band  that we are experiencing on the NorWest coast of Efate.  They don't come in too close to the fringing reefs, as they'd then be disturbed by the onshore wave action in the shallows.

Since then, we have another advice that a huge aggregation is eating out the corals right in to shore near Narpow Point and inside Shark Bay  (may be called Dolphin Bay these days).
They are heading South, so next stop will be the Eratap isles, Erakor, Pango and back into Mele Bay.

This will have a severe impact on the types of fish which graze on corals, like smaller wrasse, parrot fish, napoleons and maori wrasse.  The COTs won't leave any polyps for them to munch on.

It will also likely have  an impact on Tourism, as visiting snorkellers and scuba divers  like to see healthy coral reefs, not areas that look like a bush-fire has just burnt everything to the ground.
In previous Tourism surveys of outbound visitors at the airport, it has been shown that snorkelling has been the most favoured past-time for visitors to Vanuatu.   So when there is no live coral left around Efate, where do the snorkellers go?    Other islands in Vanuatu?  But they are also under pressure from COTs.  To Fiji, Solomons, New Caledonia?

I'm sure local  residents in the Teoma, Eratap and Pango areas also enjoy snorkelling along this East Efate coastline  and are probably used to fishing or spear-fishing along here for dinner also.

This is an underwater environmental catastrophe happening in slow motion, with no real response from Fisheries, Environment or Tourism.  Maybe Natural Disaster Management needs to get involved, as this underwater devastation is far greater than any cyclone or tsunami might create.
The Scuba Operators are the canaries in the coal mine.  They can see what's going on and are sounding the alarm bells, but it appears nobody is listening.

This huge aggregation could be stopped in its tracks right now, if there were some meagre funding available to pay local lads to snorkel from shore with hooks or special alloy spears which can hold say 8 at a time to be passed up to a waiting canoe or boat and subsequently taken ashore.  See the pics below from Launamoa Village on Pele Island and how the whole community got involved using canoes.
But there does need to be a financial incentive for people to do this, as it is hard work  (but great exercise ! & a tree-hugging feeling of achievement against overwhelming odds)

Such a removal campaign would need to be ongoing for several months, to head off the movement of COTs from the North.
Possibly only 1,000 Vatu for a half day's work, would be sufficient incentive for young enthusiastic snorkellers to join in this effort to help save the underwater environment.
Paying a bounty for each COT collected would be too difficult to manage.  It was tried in Japan, but after the initial rush and bountiful harvest  & swollen bank accounts, collectors lost interest when they had to seek out the last remaining COTs in an area, as they made little money doing that.  The ones that weren't collected created a secondary outbreak a year later.  By then the bounty system had collapsed.

You would start off with say 10 snorkellers and a canoe or small boat.  Do 2 x 1.5 hour sessions in a half day and spell in the afternoon, as this is exhausting work.  You could have a second team for the afternoon, as long as sea conditions were favourable.  If any wished to work the full day, they'd need a big lunch to keep the energy levels up.
Provide them with snorkel gear for the time they work   and store the gear somewhere safe until the next day, so it doesn't go walkabout.
There would be an initial cost for snorkel gear, spears, canoe hire,    and transport for the snorkellers from surrounding areas like Teoma to come to the particular COTs site.
You'd need a team leader to handle all the fine details.  He/she could be an employee of Fisheries or the Environment Unit.  Or anyone with some organisational skills.

But funding is the essential element needed.  A mere 500,000 Vatu should be sufficient to keep this program going for 3 months.  It would be mainly used for employing unemployed NiVanuatu youth, so the funding would benefit Society in more ways than just saving the environment.  It would help create a work ethic and a sense of achievement.

Devil's Point Dive has just closed shop, so there are several trained scuba divers who are now available to lead such an exercise to remove COTs.  They would have the support of other Dive Operators like Big Blue, Nautilus and Sailaway who could provide scuba tanks, say, once a week.  But right now, most of the COTs at Shark Bay could be removed by keen snorkellers    and scuba divers would only be needed for COTs in depths over 3 metres.

FYI:    I have had some information from a biologist on how the COTs (echinoderms) take in oxygen  as well as his thoughts on whether any fertilisation of eggs within the closed flour bag might lead to new larvae being created & possibly released into the sea when the flour bags are opened to dump the dead contents.   His thoughts were:

"Echinodermata have a water vascular respiration system.  If you look closely at them, they have hundreds of little tube suction-pad feet on their under-surface for cleaning themselves, for movement (even up steep inclines) and also for respiration.  Additionally they have so-called papulae on their skin.  Oxygen diffuses into these structures simply by a gradient from sea water to the animal.  There is no active respiration.

When placing the COTs in a sealed off bag, circulation of water over their bodies ceases, so they are starved of oxygen and die  after 1 day.  Any gamets  (fertilised eggs ?)  released into the bags would die under low oxygen concentrations.  These young stages of life usually require a lot of oxygen and should die quickly under anoxic conditions."

So the technique to hook 'em and bag 'em and leave the bags in the water for a couple of days to ensure all life is extinquished,  seems to be an effective method.
However, we have noticed that leaving the bags in the water  does manage to release enough pheromones to warn  other uncollected COTs in the area that they are under attack and need to get out of that area pronto.  So, by the next day they have all scarpered off over the dropoff.
So, where possible, it is best to move the full flour bags to shore and  dump them high & dry or preferably bury them.  

That's all for now.    We are going out COT- SWAT-ting every Saturday  (occasionally Sunday), if you wish to join us.  Experienced Scuba divers only for Paul's Rock areas.  We provide bus transfers, lunch, tanks, equipment etc.   Just need manpower.   See pics below:

Cheers,  Peter Whitelaw,
Sailaway Cruises.
Tel:  23802;   7723802 (mob)