Plans to get the algae out of fabled Cooks' lagoon
The struggle to remove algae from one of the Cook Islands prime attractions, the Muri Lagoon on Rarotonga.
Muri Lagoon, one of the great attractions for tourists to the Cook Islands, has been plagued by algae for the summer.
It has cost resorts customers and now the Chamber of Commerce is doing something about it.
The president of the chamber and Muri business operator, Steve Lyon, who is also a marine scientist, told Don Wiseman about the problem.
STEVE LYON: The amount of algae has increased over the summer and we would have expected that because of the warmer weather and the amount of heat we have had. We have also had low swell conditions this summer. Last winter was the same. May be part of the general weather pattern of El Nino this year but it has meant we haven't had as much energy in the lagoon to help clear the lagoon through and this algae has managed to establish. The algal bed has become more complex, other species of algae have established here as well and the blooms have increased.
DON WISEMAN: It's not toxic?
SL: No, no it's not toxic. We haven't had anyone reporting any issues regarding health with the lagoon. There's plenty of people still using the lagoon - locals and tourists alike, the sailing club still operates out there, and the paddle boarders, the kite boarders and the like are all out there, all the lagoon cruise operators are still operating, and we haven't had any complaints, we haven't been made aware of any health issues as a result of people using the water.
DW: But despite that there has been a commercial impact and there have been cancellations at hotels and that sort of thing.
SL: Yes, I mean the issue with the algae in Muri lagoon is in a contained area, it's only in a part of Muri lagoon itself. If you look at an aerial photo looking down you will see it is not the entire Muri lagoon area. But the fact is that is a key area for us and it is in the media so people are judging the entire Rarotonga holiday experience on what may be happening in Muri. And if you are not on the island that's fair, you see things in the media and you make decisions based on that.
DW: How significant is that impact commercially?
SL: Well it's hard to measure, virtually impossible to measure the amount of people that don't book or enquire. But we have heard from some properties that they are receiving the occasional cancellation. More commonly people are asking questions and wanting information on the problem. And some properties say they are not even in that area, it's not affecting us; other properties explain what's going on. But that can't quantify the people that aren't booking at all. We've just come out of 2015 being our most successful year to date regarding tourism arrivals. So tourism continues to grow in the Cook Islands, and we've got Jetstar starting a service on the 22nd of March with some great specials out both with Jetstar and other carriers Air NZ and Virgin. So we are expecting to have another good year this year but this really is having an impact on bookings particularly in that Muri area.
DW: You want the government to step in and do something fundamental?
SL: Well look the government so far have been letting the Muri community and the likes of myself move things forward with regards to resolving or sorting out this issue. I personally with the Chamber of Commerce would like to see the government take more of a leadership role. But of course governments work in different timeframes than the private sector. We are more in tune to making decisions and moving forward with commercial type processes where as the government tends to be slower in those immediate type responses. However they have an absolute role in the medium to longer term response that is going to be needed to resolve this issue once and for all.
DW: You yourself, the Chamber, or the community around Muri, has got a pilot programme to try and remove the algae or do what with the algae?
SL: Basically because this algae has settled on the bottom we are not going to wait for a cyclone or some heavy seas to remove it, we are going to get out there and physically remove it. We are going to use excavators just to scrape the surface of the lagoon floor to take the algae off the sandy bottom and remove it from the environment. We are doing a test area of about half a hectare to start with and we will be observing the environmental effects of that process. The idea is to scrape the algae up, clean it up and then the natural wave action in the lagoon will just resort the sediment and we should see rehabilitation of the lagoon floor to something what we would expect there - white sands, the organisms we would normally see in there, the trigger fish, the small goat fish in the shallows and that sort of stuff - all those things are more or less absent at the moment because of the modifications caused by the algal bed. So we are going to re-establish the sediment floor, the sandy lagoon floor, and we should see ecological rehabilitation but we will also see an aesthetic rehabilitation. The lagoon will look cleaner, there won't be algae on the bottom, it will be more comfortable to walk on and things like that. Ongoing of course it will take some management to stop it resettling, and we have a process around that as well. But of course in the medium term, the two, three, five year time frame, we really need to look at reticulation or some sort of system to manage our waste better
DW: All through this process there has been some criticism about what is fed into the lagoon, and there has been some pollution - my understanding is it's not a huge factor but it is still a factor, isn't it. So what is being done about that?
SL: Yes so there has been a discussion for a long time about what is appropriate for our environment and septic systems were considered appropriate when developments first started, and then 10 years ago or less, maybe six, seven years ago, an NZ Aid funded project looked at improving the quality of those septic systems and deemed they were still appropriate for the environment. However now with increased development and these problems we are having, and looking at the problem again, I think the consensus is coming around that septic systems aren't suitable for our coastal environment and that reticulation will be a better solution for that. Of course that is not the consensus view yet but it's definitely you know what we see in some of the reports we have read and the opinions of people like myself. Other issues of course are animal husbandry and not just black but also grey water, water from laundromats and things like that also have an impact. So we have to address this as a whole issue and not just one particular part of it.
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