I may have spoken a bit too soon about having stable internet! The heavy work load, coupled with a very congested, slow and often unavailable internet connection has led to slow posting. Two of the major reasons that we are in the Cook Islands are: to work with Guy Trimby of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory to search for the biofluorescent proteins, and for what we call “Service Learning,” This is where our undergraduate students have the opportunity to work, and learn, while helping others.

Being that I spent many years as a Paramedic, helping others is ingrained in my personality. The Cook Islands are very isolated, and have a number of environmental issues that we can lend a hand with, because of our experience here in the United States. There have been many hard lessons learned when it comes to managing natural resources, and by coming to the Islands, our students can both learn about a new culture, a different biome / climate, and learn the importance of helping others. The government of the Cook Islands has faced financial issues, and suffered a collapse many years ago. The main generation of revenue for the country is through tourism, fishing and agriculture. After a drop in tourism, the government was no longer able to sustain, at which point there was a restructure, and the Islands became a protectorate of New Zealand.

Though we are outsiders, the people of the Cook Islands have been very welcoming. In the past, some scientists have travelled to the Islands, done research, and left without sharing anything with the people, or the government. This has left the indigenous people in doubt about scientists, specifically because some of the scientists performed experiments which have led to perceived changes in the lagoon environment due to drilling, and injecting of chemicals into the reefs.

We would like to help with a number of issues that are currently present. The Islands are incredibly isolated, luxuries such as internet and telephone are difficult, but there is electricity and running water. Fresh water is an issue due to quality, and availability. Currently Aitutaki is in a draught, it is not uncommon for the island to run out of water during the dry season. There are also many issues with the water quality of the large lagoon, and several marine species are threatened.  One issue that we have targeted includes many topics in environmental science (ecology, agriculture, marine biology, resource management and more) and is known as “fish poisoning.” This poisoning is caused by a dinoflagellate called Ciguatera. These photosynthetic organisms, which are similar to phytoplankton, emit a neurotoxin which causes illness and paralysis in humans. Dinoflagellates are best known for producing the “Red Tide” in the United States. Ciguatera poisoning is a regular occurrence on the islands, and it happens to people who consume the fish from the reefs. We are working toward finding why Ciguatera suddenly spiked in the past 20-30 years. We have formed the hypothesis that the agricultural and septic runoff enters into fresh water streams, which exit into the lagoon, and may cause the bloom of dinoflagellates, similar to a harmful algal bloom.

Our current goals include:

  • Talking to local people about the history and social aspects to the “fish poisoning.”
  • Visiting fish markets to obtain samples of reef caught fish for Ciguatera identification.
  • Map all of the fresh water streams, and agricultural presence, which can be a cause of runoff.
  • Surveying the sandy beach environment on both the main island of Aitutaki and the surrounding “Motus” which translates into English as “small islands.”
  • Surveying the lagoon and reefs using traditional snorkel teams and ROV surveys
  • Continuing our use of the ROVs and biofluorescence payload to detect specific proteins in corals, and also to use in the detection of coral health, as our preliminary results show that the package may be able to detect disease.
  • Performing beach cleanups, and characterize the amount of microplastics present in the sand.

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