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Effort to remove Alamea from local waters begins today

A dive team of eight from off island who will assist local agencies in the removal of the Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS), Acanthaster planci, arrived this past Monday and will be in the territory for the next two weeks to assist with eradication efforts at priority reefs and sanctuary managements areas around Tutuila and Aunu’u.


Today, the group will be heading out to the north shore of the island where they will take their first dive, armed with specialized high tech equipment that will allow them to dive to depths of 60ft.-100ft. for four hours on a single tank.


Eradication of the COTS, known locally as Alamea, is a collaboration of agencies including the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa (NMSAS), the National Park Service (NPS), the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR), and the American Samoa Coral Reef Advisory Group (CRAG).


According to Joseph Paulin, Conservation Ecology and Policy Specialist for the NMSAS, the mission involves local, regional, and national collaboration and also includes team members from the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Dive Center, as well as assistance from local partners like the American Samoa Community College (ASCC), the US Coast Guard, LBJ Tropical Medical Center, Bluesky Communications, and volunteers.


Director of the NOAA Diving Program, Greg McFall, told Samoa News yesterday that this is a first for the NOAA Diving Program, “as far as going to another country to dive for the eradication of COTS”. He called the project a “big collaborative event” involving different government departments and agencies and said he and his group are here to assist with safety issues associated with dive operations.


During a special press conference held at the Tauese P.F. Sunia Ocean Center yesterday morning, CRAG’s Kristine Bucchianeri explained the current Alamea outbreak is an island-wide problem and they are grateful that the entourage of divers has arrived to assist the territory’s effort in eradicating and removing COTS.


“We are currently experiencing an outbreak of Alamea and this team of divers are here to help us address that,” she said, adding that COTS eat coral and this is a “big problem” because coral is a habitat for fish. She advises the general public to report any sighting of COTS to the proper officials, for safety reasons.


She explained that COTS are very large and have 20 legs with spines, which can be used to sting humans and cause pain.


Without proper handling, she said, a person can get stung if they try to yank the Alamea directly from the coral.


According to Bucchianeri, during recent efforts to eradicate the COTS, they have been able to inject one Alamea per minute. “This is significant, as we are definitely picking up speed as compared to previous years,” she said.


With the special dive equipment that will be used in the next two weeks, hundreds upon hundreds of Alamea should be injected by the time the team departs on Apr. 28th, next week.


The most efficient method of removing the Alamea is by injecting them with ox bile, a substance that kills the starfish but does not harm the reef. This is what the divers will be doing for the next two weeks, using a special bile injector that can hold enough bile to inject about 400 COTS at a time.


“Injections are fast and reduce the risk of divers being stung by the COTS,” Paulin explained. To date, combined efforts have removed approximately 10,000 COTS, but, Paulin added, the densest populations remain.


Deputy Superintendent of Research and Field Operations for the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Randall Kosaki, Ph.D., said they have one of the most advanced dive programs within NOAA. He said that by using the new equipment they brought in, they will be able to stay underwater longer and dive deeper, meaning more work can be done.


He said they will be using a closed circuit re-breather which, unlike traditional scuba and snorkeling equipment where small bubbles come up when a diver breathes, the gas will basically be recycled.


When asked what can be done to prevent a secondary outbreak, Bucchianeri explained that the current outbreak is a secondary one, and they feel that the population is small enough to be controlled.


“In the 1970s, American Samoa lost 80% of coral because of a massive Alamea outbreak and right now, we are nowhere near that,” she said, adding that we are in the “early stages”.


She said they have already compiled a list of 11 priority sites as target areas. Jonathan Martinez, Ph.D., from the NOAA Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary said their goal is not only to eradicate COTS from local sanctuary protected areas, but the territory as a whole. “We are here for all of American Samoa,” he added.


Diving will not only take place during the day, but also at night. A high resolution camera will be used to take videos and still photos of the dive team’s progress.


When asked about long term and sustainable solutions to addressing the Alamea problem, Bucchianeri said outbreaks of Alamea are linked to nutrients in the water. Because COTS feed on nutrients, the more nutrients in the water, the more likely they will multiply in number.


Paulin explained, “Triggered by nutrient inputs and oceanographic changes, outbreaks with thousands to millions of COTS can occur, collectively consuming so much coral that they decimate reefs.” He added, “COTS destroy essential fish breeding grounds and habitat and can have a long term, negative effect on local fisheries.”


The 1970s outbreak killed most of the coral around Tutuila, including over 90% of the coral in Fagatele Bay, before it was a marine sanctuary.


“But this disaster propelled the decision for the site’s designation,” Paulin pointed out.


Planning for the Alamea eradication has included a pre-operation tow-board and drop surveys to identify areas with the highest densities of COTS so removal efforts can achieve maximum success as well as team roles and agency participation for all phases of the project.


Following the completion of the project on Apr. 28, a briefing for all partners, the public and the media will be held at the Ocean Center in Utulei.


Findings from the project will also be written up and published.