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VEPA: Conservation Monitoring and Assessment in Tonga

This marine conservation project, Program Development for Conservation Monitoring and Assessment of Zooplankton, Cryptobenthic Fishes, Coral Growth and Recruitment in Vava’u Archipelago, Tonga, is a collaboration between the Tongan Government Ministry of Fisheries (MoF), the Vava’u Environmental Protection Association(VEPA), the ‘Euakafa Island Research Centre (EIRC), and marine scientists associated with the University of Washington, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS), Luke Tornabene, PhD, Raymond Buckley, PhD, and Marta Gómez-Buckley, MS, and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, Nina Bednarsek, PhD. The overall objective of this project is to develop comprehensive local programs for the MoF and VEPA to monitor the status of Special Management Areas (SMAs) in the Vava’u Archipelago, Tonga.

Project field operations will collect the first baseline data for nearshore zooplankton and cryptobenthic reef fish communities found in the SMAs. These communities are vital components of reef ecosystem health, forming the basic food webs that support marine resource production. Assessments of the zooplankton and cryptobenthic fish communities are often neglected in costal marine surveys, and they were not included in the 2014 Rapid Assessment of Biodiversity of the Vava’u Archipelago Project (BioRAP).

This project will develop methods for conducting quantitative near-vertical deep water, and shallow-depth horizontal, plankton net tows from small vessels. Protocols will also be established for quantitative nearshore diver sample collection and abundance surveys of cryptobenthic fishes. Field and laboratory instructions will detail procedures for accurate preservation of plankton and fish samples under tropical conditions, and for assessments of organisms using microscopes. Project analyses of all samples will include digital identification photographs of key organisms. This information will be used in field and laboratory technology transfer training sessions for MoF and VEPA staff, and to produce Field and Laboratory Manuals for MoF and VEPA monitoring programs. These Manuals are transferrable to training and monitoring programs throughout the region, and can be continually evaluated and improve for effectiveness. Larval and cryptobenthic fishes requiring species identifications using genetic techniques will be shipped to the SAFS/Burke Museum Collection for analyses by Dr. Tornabene.

Dr. Buckley and M. Gómez-Buckley conducted a successful pilot study of zooplankton and cryptobenthic fishes in Vava’u in October 2016, that formed the very strong local collaboratively relationships. The pilot study also developed preliminary sampling and laboratory methods for this project. The reports covering this study are attached. These researchers have extensive experience and expertise in plankton sampling and identification, conducting marine ecological field investigations in remote insular areas, and in coral reef fish survey and collection techniques. Field experience including research in American Samoa, the Seychelles Islands, Red Sea, Micronesia, Canary Islands, and the Mediterranean.

This project is aligned with VEPA objectives to promote protection and conservation of marine resource biodiversity. Survey results will provide information for developing awareness and engagement programs for outreach education, and guide responsible resource development that supports community livelihood programs. Ocean conservation benefits are realized through development of SMAs, and accurate marine spatial planning.

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