Notes from the field: periodic harvests

I thought I’d be tweeting and blogging away from the field – but alas, since Digicel installed a tower in Kubulau, Vodafone signal is but a figment of my imagination. So I am cut off from all forms of communication with the outside world – six days in, it feels like a weight has been lifted.

After 18 long months of slogging it in the office and pitching proposals non-stop to donors, we are finally back in the field for a new project. During the past few years we have been collecting information about the reefs to provide recommendations about where to set up no-fishing zones (or marine protected areas – MPAs) and monitoring their effectiveness over time. This trip is different – we have asked the village of Kiobo in Kubulau District to open their MPA to see what happens. “What!” the purists would yell, “Open an MPA? Are you crazy?” But the simple fact is that rural communities in Fiji routinely open their MPAs to provide food for social functions. This practice comes from a cultural legacy throughout Melanesia of creating short-term, no-fishing zones specifically so that they would be able to have a great harvest for a social event and redistribute the food as a show of wealth and status. Thus, even though most communities within the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area network say that they want to have fish for the future, they also very much want to have fish for the present.

More and more frequently, there are expectations that the MPAs can provide a source of income whenever the community needs money to pay school fees, church fees, provincial levies, etc. This is leading to more intense and more frequent harvests from MPAs, and the fish just don’t stand a chance. Here is where we come in – our current project is evaluating how much you can extract from an MPA and still have sustainable fisheries for the future. We recognise that the MPAs in Fiji work best where cultural practice is strong – and if cultural practice demands occasionally opening an MPA, then we need to be able to offer some better guidelines about how much can be harvested besides just “don’t take all the biggest fish.”

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In the field with us this time is Jordan Goetze, a PhD student from University of Western Australia, whom I’ve recruited to look at the ecological impacts of harvesting MPAs for his doctoral research. On this trip, he is testing out a range of survey methods to see which ones best document the impact of a week-long harvest from the Kiobo MPA. Our WCS staff are collecting our standard underwater visual census data, which he will compare with before and after harvest surveys of the reefs using diver-operated video and baited remote underwater video surveys (BRUVs). The diver-operated video information is certainly more efficient to collect than our laborious fish and benthic counts, while the BRUVs potentially allow us to collect a better record of predatory fish that are often skiddish of SCUBA divers. At the same time, we have sent out WCS staff and a Masters student from the University of the South Pacific to conduct household interviews to find out what the local people are expecting from the harvest in terms of food and monetary benefits, and then we will resurvey them after the event to see how these expectations were met.

Conducting fieldwork in remote Fiji is always challenging. Today we are stuck in the village as the fuel hose for our dive compressor became shredded, thus preventing us from filling our dive tanks. Waisea and Akuila have gone to Savusavu in search of a replacement. The winds have been up, causing rather treacherous conditions mooring at sites. Under pressure to complete 4 dives a day, we often find ourselves returning to the village for a low tide swap of empty for full tanks, which must be lugged across hundreds of meters of intertidal seagrass and algal beds. And there is no rest for the weary in the evening – data must be entered, kava drunk, and special efforts made to conduct awareness presentations in the surrounding villages so they understand what they stand to gain from the information collected from these surveys. Full support of the local communities is crucial for this project to succeed, so it is worth the extra effort to haul our generator, projector and white sheet around to the various villages by boat, often in the dark, for evening presentations to ensure that everyone knows what is happening.

What will we find when the MPA is opened? Unfortunately, it looks as though the local reports of emboldened poachers encroaching on inshore fishing grounds may be true. We certainly did not see overly abundant fish life in the MPA, and invertebrates were few and far between. Yet, hopefully the men and women of Kiobo village will still be able to pull in a sizeable catch, which can provide them a modicum of income while allowing us to gather a piece of the puzzle to evaluate thresholds of impact. Keep your coconut wireless tuned for the results . . . moce mada. Stacy

Adapting to climate change: learning from our neighbours in Vanuatu

Recently I was lucky enough to attend a training course in methods of community adaptation to climate change, run by the Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development (PACE-SD). My 2 week trip to Vanuatu for this training was inspiring and taught me a lot of things about climate change. It’s amazing what we learned from one of the presenters, Dr Chris Bartlett from SPC-GTZ, about the wide range of different effects of climate change. After a week of classroom learning, we had a week in the field to visit community-based climate change adaptation projects and learn from them.

I was happy to see first-hand how they have setup a pilot project on the island of Pele which accommodates 4 villages (Piliura, Warasiviu, Launamoa and Worearu). The communities take full ownership of the project to make good use of the resources around them. For example, each village has their own MPA, the school has 2 composting toilets, Piliura village has a solar drying food compartment, and they even have a nursery in which they use Crown of Thorns starfish as manure! First they first collect the starfish, then ‘weather’ them to remove salt (either by burying or leaving exposed). Once properly dried the starfish are ground up and put in a composter, mixed with leaves, soil or organic matter and left to compost for 3-6 months with regular aeration and mixing. The village of Launamoa have a piggery, where cross breed the wild pigs and the normal ones and feed them with coconut and other food scraps. Pig waste is then collected and mixed with leaves or other organic matter to be used as manure for their sweet potato and vegetable gardens. I am quite sure that this can also be used in some communities we work in Fiji, with minimum help from government.

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As well as the excellent training, the 2 week trip was a chance to go back to my birthplace for the first time. The French influence was still very clear; I was surprised to see in most supermarkets how much food is imported and I wonder how do they offset these costs? However, the food was delicious especially the nice juicy steak!

Sea cucumber harvest provides church roof

Holothuria scabra collected in Natuvu village

On the 24th September 2012 the communities of Natuvu village in Wailevu district started harvesting sea cucumbers (Holothuria scabra, or dairo in Fijian) from the shallow waters outside their marine protected area. Sea cucumbers are being cultured in Natuvu village through a joint project with Fiji Department of Fisheries, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, and James Cook University. The dried animals fetch a high price for sale in Asian markets – up to $100 per kilo. Around 1,200 of the valuable animals were collected on the first day of the harvest and 1,000 individuals on the second day. We are waiting to hear the final catch figures for the harvest from the communities.

During the harvest I saw first-hand the long drying process to prepare the catch for sale. First the communities cooked the dairo then buried them in sand for 24 hours. After this, they cleaned them and cooked again for 10 minutes and then dried the cooked animals using dryers. Finally, the sea cucumbers are cooked again for 15-20 minutes and then sun dried until they are sold.

It was very encouraging to see the community come together as the women of the village cleaned the dairo while all the men helped out in the cooking, cleaning and drying. Harvesting will continue until enough money is collected from selling sea cucumbers to purchase new roofing material for their village church.

Catch information collected from this harvest will contribute to a study by the University of Georgia in the US. In August, WCS Fiji staff assisted Professor Mark Hay and his team to carry out surveys inside and outside the marine protected area owned by Natuvu village, for example gathering seabed sediment samples and assessing the density of sea cucumbers before the planned harvest. These data are now being analysed by Professor Hay, before he returns to Natuvu for a post-harvest survey. The research hopes to answer questions about the effects of large-scale harvests of sea cucumbers on ecosystem functions such as nutrient cycling.