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An Intro to Our American Samoa Marine Debris Mission

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There’s nothing quite like getting on or in the water to stir the writing juices. I’m back in the field, this time in American Samoa as part of a team of NOAA folks. As you saw from the last post, we’re here by request of the American Samoa governor and agencies to conduct an assessment of marine debris generated by the September 29 tsunami and to do emergency coral restoration, as appropriate. This has been a whirlwind of planning, with only about a week’s advance notice before our departure.

A magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck near American Samoa, generating a destructive tsunami. While the first attention was to human life and recovery on land, thoughts in some parts of NOAA rushed to the coral reefs that are so important to the economy and culture of American Samoa.

8.0 tsunami: Map courtesy of Google, TerraMetrics

Do you know where American Samoa is? Did you know it’s part of the United States? If the answers are no, don’t feel bad; I had no knowledge of American Samoa before I moved to Hawaii. The territory’s Historic Preservation Office has information on the cultural and political history of American Samoa. It’s south of the equator, closer to New Zealand than to Hawaii. American Samoa is made up of five volcanic islands and two atolls; most of the population lives on Tutuila, which is the only island we’ll be able to survey on this trip.

Map of the Pacific Ocean. Photo by National Park Service

Tsunamis are a very episodic but natural occurrence, and corals can recover from the damage by waves, sediment, and plant debris caused by the tsunami. However, the debris load can be much greater in areas where humans build their homes and live their lives in the inundation zone. The very goods that make our lives more comfortable–things like corrugated metal roofs, metal or plastic garbage bins, bulky mattresses–also can wreak havoc when they’re deposited on coral reefs.

We’re by no means stepping into a vacuum of response. Volunteer cleanups organized by American Samoa’s Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources have targeted shorelines and reef flats in a few villages, and agency divers have gotten in the water to look at what the damage was in terms of debris and coral damage. NOAA’s mission is to take a systematic survey of marine debris in the coral reef habitats near villages that were particularly affected by the tsunami. This will be a first step in determining what the next steps should be and what is needed to take them.

While corals broken by tsunami wave energy can recovery naturally, that recovery can be more difficult in areas that are already stressed by human influences. So if the divers find coral heads that were broken off and overturned by the tsunami and if those corals are still alive, the divers will turn them back upright. This emergency restoration may not be sufficient, but it can keep the corals alive, with access to sunlight, until more permanent reattachment can be done.

The advance team of seven NOAA personnel arrived Sunday night, November 29. We’ve been meeting with territorial agency folks to determine the areas we should focus our efforts on, with village mayors and the news outlets to get the word out to the communities we’ll be working near, and with other federal agencies working on tsunami recovery. We’ve also been figuring out the logistics for launching and fueling boats, refilling SCUBA tanks, and staging equipment. The rest of the team arrives on tonight’s flight, after a five-hour flight from Honolulu.

NOAA Corps officer LT Ben LaCour and I briefed a meeting
of village mayors and media representatives on Tuesday.

Yesterday, we were able to do a reconnaissance run along the southwestern coast of Tutuila. Kyle, our field operations lead, swam around two bays to get an idea of how best to deploy his boat teams, looking at water depths and debris densities. We all got in the water in Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a bay with no village along its shorelines.


Kyle Koyanagi gears up to do a reconnaissance
swim around the bay in front of the village of Leone.

Tomorrow we’ll join in one of the volunteer cleanups, in the village of Amanave, close to the western tip of the island of Tutuila.

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

One thought on “An Intro to Our American Samoa Marine Debris Mission

  1. Great Job Guys!!! Faafetai lava!!!

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