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“To’atugā” Five Mile Reef: A vital resource for the people of Samoa

In Samoa, the ocean is our identity. It is our past, present, and future. The ocean connects us and keeps us deeply rooted in our culture and our history as voyagers, islanders, and people of the sea.

The ocean has always been known to protect our livelihoods and food security and contribute to Samoa’s economy. Because the biodiversity and productivity of Samoa’s marine ecosystems underpin the resources that people rely on, protecting these ecosystems has been important in ensuring their resilience in an uncertain future.

One of Samoa’s identified inshore Special Unique Marine Area (SUMA), is the “Five-Mile Reef” or, locally known “To’atugā Reef.” A reef that’s name is defined as having strength, one that plays a vital role in the lives of the Samoan people and marine ecosystems. It serves as a home and as a spawning and feeding ground for marine species that are important for local fisheries. The reef also protects Samoa’s coasts by acting as a barrier against incoming storms and erosion, which is especially important in the face of climate change.

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Figure 1: Map of To’atuga Reef | Source: SUMA Report - SPREP

Five Mile (To’atugā) Reef is located approximately 7 km seaward and to the north of Apia Harbour, off the north coast of Upolu Island. The reef was developed on a gently sloping shelf, created during the mid to late Pleistocene by the Mulifanua volcano. It is an elongated ridge of reef extending in an NW–SE axis, with a broad reef top that ranges between 15-22m descending on a slope of 300-450 with vertical sections to a sand and rubble bottom at 35-40m. 

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Figure 2: Five Mile Reef | Source: SPREP 

The reef has been listed as one of Samoa’s seven key biodiversity areas (KBA) and is unique due to its location, depth, frequent waves and current movement. It is isolated from the mainland and occurs in relatively deep water for coral reef development. All of these conditions influence marine life by affecting water clarity, nutrient distribution, and the physical structure of the reef, thereby shaping the types of marine organisms such as coral, fish, and other species that can thrive there.

Former surveys conducted by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) indicate that the marine trigger species listed as especially important for conservation purposes in Five Mile Reef are the Bumphead Parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) which contribute to the health of coral reefs, along with the Humphead Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus) that are important predators of invertebrates, including crown-of-thorns starfish. 

Unfortunately, this reef has been experiencing major challenges. Coral reefs, including those in Five Mile Reef, are facing serious threats that endanger their health and survival. One major issue is climate change, which heats up the ocean’s temperature and leads to coral bleaching. Coral bleaching happens when the warm water disrupts the important relationship corals have with algae, which they rely on for food. If the water doesn't cool down, this stress can cause widespread coral death, impacting the entire ecosystem that depends on them.  Other issues the reef may face include overfishing as well as anchor damage. 

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Figure 3: Progressive death of an Acropora clathrata colony - Coral Bleaching  |  Source: SPREP Baseline Survey

It is essential to recognize the value Five Mile Reef brings to the people of Samoa. Marine Spatial Planning is a useful process to help balance human activity demands with our ecosystems' health, ensuring that special, unique marine areas such as Five Mile Reef are protected and can continue to thrive. 

In the collaborative efforts to sustain and manage our ocean, Samoa has taken leadership by launching the Samoa Ocean Strategy that commits to sustainably manage its entire ocean domain (120,000 km2) and formally protect 30% of this (36,000 km2). Through this strategy, some of the Special Unique Marine areas around Samoa that hold ecological value including that of Five Mile Reef are recognised as requiring particular consideration when planning for the optimal use and management of the country’s ocean. 

The Samoa Ocean Strategy (SOS) is a comprehensive strategy to address those threats. The SOS is the national policy framework that seeks to sustainably manage Samoa’s vast ocean and marine resources for the well-being of all Samoans now and into the future. The SOS provides bold and comprehensive integrated ocean management solutions that will advance ocean stewardship and ensure the cultural and economic values that Samoans derive from their 120,000 square kilometer ocean are preserved for generations to come.  

The SOS complements existing plans while strengthening ocean conservation efforts with a focus on Marine Spatial Planning and sustainable fisheries management, while also further developing Samoa’s Blue Economy. The strategy also integrates the implementation and management of Sustainable Development Goals, regional policies, and international commitments that concern the marine environment.

Let us know why it is important for you to safeguard Samoa’s ocean and share why the ocean is important to you using #SOSMyOcean on social media.

To find out more information on how you can be part of the Samoa Ocean Strategy, follow @SamoaOceanStrategy on Facebook and check out our website www.samoaocean.org

Our ocean is our legacy. Let us continue to champion ocean stewardship and protect our marine resources.

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