The Unité Mixte de Recherche (multi-partner research unit) Ecosystèmes Insulaires Océaniens (Oceania Island Ecosystems) (UMR-241 EIO) was set up in 2012 at the initiative of the Université de la Polynésie Française (UPF - University of French Polynesia), IFREMER (Institut Français de Recherche pour l'Exploitation de la Mer - French Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea), IRD (Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement - Research Institute for Development) and the Institut Louis Malardé (ILM), as part of a five-year project (2012-2016). It was the first UMR in any discipline to be set up at the Université de la Polynésie Française and at the ILM, and more broadly, the first French UMR with staff entirely based outside continental France.
The actions of the UMR are centred on a scientific project with the overall aim of analysing the interactions Resources - Environment - Uses within island ecosystems. This research unit was set up to meet a need for a more structured and more federated organisation of French Polynesia's research capacity. This has involved the pooling of human, technical and financial resources between the partner institutions, in order to respond in a coordinated manner to French Polynesia's requirements and to the major scientific issues confronting the island ecosystems of Oceania.
A federated research effort focused on 4 scientific objectives
- Understanding the functioning of commercially exploited Oceania island ecosystems and characterising future trends, in particular in the context of global change.
- Identifying natural substances of interest and ways of valorising of the natural resources, with the aim of providing support for sustainable development in French Polynesia.
- Identifying the risk factors (ecological, health and social), and characterising the vulnerability of Oceania Island Ecosystems (OIE).
- Characterising the response and the role of the biodiversity of OIEs and developing innovative tools for observation and monitoring.
Research facilities at 4 sites
These objectives are particularly meaningful in French Polynesia, which is an outstanding natural laboratory for the study of the island ecosystems of Oceania. Spread over a territory of more than 5 million km2, the 118 islands that make up French Polynesia represent a broad panel of ecological, anthropic and geomorphological conditions (high islands with fringing reefs and barrier reefs, atolls). This diversity of situations confers on French Polynesia major advantages both for the development and implementation of comparative approaches to test ecological theories with the aim of better understanding the functioning of OIEs, and for testing observation and monitoring tools. In addition, over the past three decades, the mainstays of French Polynesia's economy have been pearl culture, fishing (lagunar and pelagic) and tourism focused on marine activities (the attraction of which is strongly dependent on the 'state of health' of the ecosystems concerned). However, the combined impact of a general economic crisis and the local degradation of the marine ecosystems and their diversity have strongly impacted the profitability of each of these three sectors of activity. Thus, in addition to its purely scientific interest, the strong dependence of the French Polynesia on the Ecosystem Services, today threatened, confers on the study of the island ecosystems of Oceania a public interest of the first order. Developing in French Polynesia innovative systems for the effective monitoring and management of the OIEs on the basis of acquired knowledge is thus a priority. In addition, it represents a first step towards the transfer of these methodologies to other island ecosystems, in particular those of South countries.
The characteristics of French Polynesia thus make it an outstanding workshop for the study of the interactions resources - environment - uses within the island ecosystems of Oceania. Without seeking to present an exhaustive list, the advantages derived from the position of French Polynesia may be illustrated by a few examples:
- The existence of areas that have been relatively little exposed to anthropic pressure (mainly due to their distance from population centres), confers on French Polynesia the potential (increasingly rare at global scale) to provide a suitable environment for research focused on the impact of climate change, while keeping to a minimum the risk that the results might be 'disturbed' by the effects of anthropic pressure.
- French Polynesia possesses about 20% of the world's atolls, characterised furthermore by a wide diversity of situations (size, degree of water renewal, quantity and nature of human pressures). Certain Polynesian atolls present in addition unique characteristics with regard to the fauna. This is the case, for example, for the high density of giant clams (a bivalve mollusc emblematic throughout the Indo-Pacific zone), which clearly distinguishes certain Polynesian atolls from other tropical OIEs. However, this situation, which has been a factor in creating the image of French Polynesia, is changing rapidly because of major mortality episodes which have had an impact on this rich heritage and on the Ecosystem Services that are derived from it. More broadly, the great vulnerability of the atolls, and of their resident populations, in the face of climate warming confirms the priority of this kind of study. The unique position of French Polynesia with regard to the atolls makes it a particularly favourable environment for the development of far-reaching studies on the functioning and the response of this type of particularly vulnerable ecosystem.
- The ecosystems of French Polynesia have shown themselves to be highly vulnerable in the face of the introduction of alien species, in both the terrestrial and marine domains. Associated with their great sensitivity to climate warming and with the impact of local anthropic pressure, the OIEs of French Polynesia are under threat from a broad range of pressures. Understanding the mechanisms of resistance and resilience of the OIEs thus represents a major challenge, shared by many other island countries. In comparison with many other OIEs, in particular in the South countries, the French Polynesian ecosystems have benefitted from a long history of scientific research, because of the long-standing presence of various research organisations. This has resulted in the development of an extensive corpus of information, which offers a valuable basis for developing over-time comparative studies. This situation is an asset for the development of innovative methodologies for monitoring and predicting the responses of the OIEs to the pressures to which they are subjected. The knowledge and the tools developed on this theme by the EIO research group are intended to be transferred subsequently to other countries, in particular those of the South, which do not yet possess the means or the background to develop and implement methodologies of this kind.
French Polynesia represents an area where the effects of the degradation of the natural environment have a direct impact on the health of populations and on their way of life. Disturbances of anthropic origin aggravate the contamination of seafood products (in particular by neurotoxins), making certain traditional seafood products unfit for consumption (lagoon fishes, giant clams), and resulting in an increasing phenomenon of nutrition transition. French Polynesia is not the only country that is confronted with this kind of problem, which is on the contrary spreading rapidly throughout many inter-tropical regions and even temperate zones. On the other hand, it has in this field too had the benefit of a long history of research, which marks it out from the other OIEs which are affected by the impact of these health issues.