Demos urgent plea for lagoon action

Tuesday 12 January 2021 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Environment, National

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Demos urgent plea for lagoon action
Aerial of Muri Lagoon in late December, looking south. PHOTO: Lara Ainley, MMR 20123116

The Opposition Democratic Party is accusing the Government of inaction in rehabilitating Muri Lagoon, which is often described as one of the top tourist draws in Rarotonga.

The Opposition accused Government of failing to adequately address problems affecting the lagoon since Muri was declared a “crisis” in late 2015 by the Cook Islands Party-led government, due to a massive outgrowth of algae which continues to affect the area.

“It’s so heartbreaking,” said Demo Opposition environment spokesperson and Member of Parliament for Titikaveka Sel Napa, who visited Muri over the weekend to assess the state of the lagoon.

Last month, scientists with the Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR) said they believe the lagoon – already dealing with excessive algae – experienced an anoxic event, which occurs when a body of water is depleted of significant amounts of dissolved oxygen, affecting marine life.

Since then, the lagoon has been observed to be heavily saturated with decomposing algae and a foul smell. The decline in dissolved oxygen also resulted in the discovery of dead fish and other sea animals along the shore.

While the current condition of the lagoon has been attributed to high temperatures, reduced water movement and flushing, and the rapid decomposition of algae, government scientists have said long-term issues such as human activities and the excess nutrients entering the lagoon are playing a role.

MMR has since issued a warning against swimming and harvesting seafood in the area due to high levels of bacteria.

Sel Napa said: “I came away feeling really concerned, even scared that the damage to this may be irreversible, that so many years of complete inaction by this government will leave the top jewel of Rarotonga permanently scarred.”

“Even in its current state which will get worse with time if nothing is done, the tourism industry and our Cook Islands Tourism can’t honestly promote Muri Lagoon as being a beautiful, untouched place because it isn’t.”

Muri Lagoon must be saved and as soon as possible, she said.

A 2017 government study found that nutrients from on-site wastewater systems in Muri as the leading cause for water quality issues in the lagoon, including algae growth.

One of the recommendations from the study was for the implementation of a reticulated wastewater system to service the highly developed areas along the lagoon’s coastline.

The recommendation has been included in government’s Mei Te Vai Ki Te Vai project, which aims to improve the health of Rarotonga and Aitutaki’s lagoons.

Yesterday the Opposition accused the Government of dragging its feet on implementing the system.

“Little movement has been made on the reticulation system and locals who have seen the plan believe it to be seriously flawed,” the statement reads.

The Opposition and some commentators have suggested dredging could allow better flow of water in and out of the lagoon to address the issue.

However, MMR said dredging or the blasting of new passages in the reef would not adequately address the problems affecting the lagoon and encourage flushing.

In a statement to Cook Island News, the ministry said a 2018 study found that seawater enters the lagoon predominately over the reef in the south, and moves north before exiting through Avana passage.

“The amount of water coming over the reef – at an elevation higher than the lagoon water level – drives flushing out of the Avana passage,” said Dr Lara Ainley, MMR’s senior marine ecologist.

“So, without more water coming into the lagoon from the south (the entry point), the lack of flushing won’t change, regardless of the size of Avana passage (the exit point).

“Therefore, widening Avana passage through dredging isn’t considered an effective solution to this problem.”

Ainley said efforts should be focussed on reducing the amount of nutrients entering the lagoon ecosystem, which will improve lagoon health and resilience to occurrences such as last month’s anoxic event.

“This requires long term efforts by everyone, and it includes the solutions that are being devised through the Mei Te Vai Ki Te Vai Project to improve wastewater management,” she added.

The Opposition further urged Government to act swiftly to address the problems in Muri to avoid greater impacts on an already fragile tourism sector.

“… here is a plea to Cabinet, please don’t sit around waiting for the weather to change or Bishop Tutai Pere’s kind prayers to be answered, we just don’t have time and we must start doing things now to save Muri Lagoon,” said Napa.