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WCS Fiji recently ran a symposium entitled “Integrating Systematic Conservation Planning with Local Management Actions in Fiji” at the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania section meeting in Darwin, Australia, that ran from September 21 to 23. The mission of the Society of Conservation Biology is to advance the science and practice of conserving the Earth’s biological diversity. The Oceania section includes Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, Australia and New Zealand, and aims to have section meetings in the region every 2 years, with the next one scheduled for Fiji in July 2014!!
The symposium kicked off with an overview of the rather ad hoc evolution of Fiji’s current system of protected areas by WCS Fiji Director Stacy Jupiter. This was followed by two excellent case studies of community-based adaptive management of marine protected area (MPA) networks in Fiji. Rebecca Weeks, formerly of WCS Fiji and currently of James Cook University, showcased the efforts of Kubulau District communities to expand their MPA network and James Comley of the University of the South Pacific’s Institute of Applied Science, highlighted work by USP Masters student Hans Karl Wendt on adaptive reconfiguration of MPAs across all of Kadavu Province. Kasaqa Tora of the National Trust of Fiji then gave an in-depth view of Fiji’s terrestrial gap analysis results and how the national Protected Area Committee has prioritized new areas for conservation that will hopefully be funded under Fiji’s GEF-PAS allocation.
Two further research projects were presented by our collaborators Vanessa Adams, of James Cook University and Charles Darwin University, and Azusa Makino of the University of Queensland. They focused on ways to integrate socioeconomic costs and considerations of land-sea connectivity into systematic conservation plans for Fiji.
We received excellent feedback from all of the presentations, including an offer from an editor of Pacific Conservation Biology to submit a paper to the journal on the intricacies of protected area planning and implementation in Fiji. Our work in Fiji shared many parallels with ongoing efforts to expand conservation and management in indigenous areas of the Northern Territory in Australia, as well as Papua New Guinea and other Pacific island nations.
WCS Fiji Director, Dr Stacy Jupiter, talks to Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat about how indigenous communities in Fiji are making huge leaps towards meeting the national target to protect 30% of marine habitats by 2020. Through the determined efforts of local communities to establish traditional tabu areas (marine protected areas) protecting their coral reefs, Fiji has already achieved the internationally agreed 10% protection target for coastal and marine habitats, which is part of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The grouper monitoring program in Kadavu was started by Dr. Yvonne Sadovy and Rick Nemeth from the Society for the Conservation of Reef Fish Aggregations in 2008. Dr. Sadovy assembled an international team consisting of local fisheries officers and local and international scientists to monitor the number and type of groupers in the area.
The area is used by several groupers and many other species for spawning so it was established as a marine protected area (no-take zone) managed by the local village. The main grouper that spawn at the site and are being monitored include the Camouflage grouper (Epinephelus polyphekadion), Brown marble grouper (E. fuscoguttatus), Squaretail coralgrouper (Plectropomus areolatus) and Black saddle grouper (P. laevis).
The study team consisted of me, Brad Erisman a professor of Marine Biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, USA and Rick Nemeth from the Conservation of Reef Fish Aggregation in the Virgin Islands. Our research was supported by Siwa, the dive master, and Tulala the boat captain. We dove three times per day for six straight days, and we saw a lot of groupers. On the first day of diving, Brad and I saw approximately 50-60 Brown marble grouper and a few small groups of Camouflage grouper and Black saddle grouper. Rick didn’t arrive until the next day, because he was delayed because of a hurricane that was passing by his home in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
For the rest of the week, we did not see many Camouflage grouper or Brown marble grouper, which suggested that these fish were not spawning at the time of our visit. For the Camouflage grouper, we suspect they have spawned already, whereas the Brown marble grouper may have spawned just before we arrived (before the full moon). However, with each passing day, we observed more and more Black saddle grouper. Many of these fish were really large – more than 90-100 cm in length and weighing more than 10 kg. The largest ones took on a brilliant coloration with dark gray on their head, front and back of their bodies but with a large white stripe down the middle, a bright white belly and lips. After three years of working at this site, this year seems to have the highest count of Black saddle grouper. These fish would swim by other groupers, turning their bodies to the side and shaking their head violently back and forth. While we are not sure exactly why these fish were behaving this way, in other groupers this behavior occurs in aggressive behavior between males as well by males attempting court and spawn with a female. By the end of the trip, we estimated that there were as many as 135 Black saddle grouper in our survey area.
In 2010, Rick Nemeth had placed three acoustic receivers on the reef to record the presence of any tagged camouflage grouper as they move in and out of the area to spawn. The portion of the project related to the receivers was set to finish this year, so we decided to retrieve all the receivers this week as well.
Overall, the trip was a great success. The entire staff at the resort was wonderful, generous, and helpful to us throughout our trip. We were invited by the chief and the staff to take part in a kava ceremony, where we learned a lot more about the local communities and their resources. Of course, we also accomplished all our research goals for the trip. Hopefully, if we are lucky, next year when we return we’ll get to see the spawning of the Black saddle grouper.
Edith Whippy is a skilled lady. She is capable of weaving all kinds of mats from kuta (Water chestnut, Eleocharis dulcis), but she loves most of all to make round kuta mats. Usually she collects kuta from Muanicula estate which is just down the road from where she lives. When she travels there by boat to collect the stems and she used to pay F$20 per day, but these now with the high demand for kuta the cost has increased to F$30 a day. Kuta harvesting is a job for all the family – the Whippys set off at 8am to make the trip worthwhile, and spend the day wading in knee-deep water to cut the plants.
At times Edith has to go to Kasavu village to collect kuta, a long journey past Savusavu town, and she is charged F$400 for the return trip which she shares with the other women. The longer you keep dried kuta the better it is, because it softens and becomes easier to use – often it is kept under the mattress to keep the brittle stems soft. Kuta weaving is done only on rainy days or in cooler weather since it tends to break if woven during hot, sunny periods.
Edith’s grandmother taught her the skills of weaving round kuta mats and she has been doing this since 1982 when she married Mr Whippy. Her mats are usually made to order from friends and relatives, providing her main source of income. Round kuta mats are generally charged by hand-span; at around $10 for every hand-span the mats can provide a good alternative livelihood for women. At the same time kuta weaving benefits the environment and local communities: by giving a solid reason to protect the important wetland habitats in which kuta thrives, essential ecosystem services such as clean water will continue to be enjoyed by the nearby villages.
“I conducted training in Natokalau and Dawara villages [in Kubulau and Wailevu districts respectively] last year . I could see the passion in the ladies to learn the weaving skills quickly, but most of them who came had their small children with them, which made it hard for them to learn as a lot of time was spent attending to the little ones”, said Edith. She is willing to help other women by sharing her special skills and experience from 30 years of weaving round kuta mats, making sure this tradition does not slip away. This will be made possible as part of a WCS Fiji project in Bua and Cakaudrove provinces, which will establish a cooperative selling round kuta mats, therefore giving communities a reason to maintain and manage their precious kuta wetland habitats.
This project is kindly supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), a joint program of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the World Bank.
Watching cetaceans play in waters of Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra Seascape was a lovely experience. The whales and dolphins love to entertain while they guide travelers during bad weather, according to the village elders. Their performances are so varied; they breach, spin, spy-hop (when dolphins pop their heads above the surface and look around), flap their tail or flippers – all part of their communication system, but an amazing display of behaviour for us. They also make different noises underwater, sometimes to attract mates or just talk to each other.
I was part of the 2012 WCS Fiji Cetacean Hotspot Survey (1st to 11th August), together with Margy and Waisea, community representatives, and Dr Cara Miller from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) as the cetacean expert to guide us. We were hosted in the beautiful village of Nasau in Ra Province, northeastern Viti Levu, where we were welcomed with lot of excitement.
On Day 1 of the survey we were rewarded with a sighting of a humpback whale as soon as we reached Vatu-i-Ra Island – a tiny speck in the waters of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape, over 20 km from the nearest land. We started by testing two different methods for recording sightings: boat transects and land-based sightings from a vantage point with a 360° view of the open ocean. Later the land-based team joined the boat team due to bad weather preventing clear sightings from land. Day 2 was a day without any sightings, although we did manage to record some faint whale songs. I was getting anxious, hoping I would catch some close-up glimpses of the whales and dolphins recorded in previous years. Things improved on Day 3 as we spotted a pod of Bottlenose dolphin adults with calves – they were cute, fat, and fast swimmers. Much to our delight, one of the calves was spy-hoping while our cameras snapped. The same day we encountered a pod of Shortfin pilot whales scattered over a larger area, with one of the group coming to check us out – you can see a short clip of his visit below!
We had evening events every night where Waisea explained the day’s happenings to the villagers and we showed them videos, pictures and songs. All songs were recorded using a hydrophone provided by WDCS, so that the songs could be analysed later and compared cetacean songs from other regions. Some of the songs we recorded on Day 4 sounded like whale and dolphin rap, where the whales would sing first and the dolphins would respond to it! The adventure continued with plenty of whales and dolphins sighted on the 4th day – Spinner dolphins, Shortfin pilot whales and Humpback whales were all there, swimming happily in the water. After a break on Sunday, we were welcomed on Monday with deteriorating weather which restricted us to land-based survey for a few days. Finally we managed to complete our last few boat transects, with a few more sightings and songs recorded.
I returned very happy because we saw so many different cetaceans, and recorded songs almost every day – it was an adventurous trip!
WCS Fiji gratefully acknowledge funding from The Marisla Foundation to carry out this work.