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Our recent trip to Bua highlighted the speed at which construction of the Nabouwalu to Dreketi highway is progressing. Following a good spell of weather, extensive roadside clearing and leveling had been undertaken along the stretch between Nabouwalu and Dama, which was a hive of digging and landscaping activity.
The project represents a major upgrade of the former road, creating a tar-sealed highway that will improve connectivity and access to markets as a part of the Fijian government’s Look North Policy that seeks to encourage economic development on Vanua Levu.
Speaking with the Provincial Administrator for Bua in the course of management planning workshops, local people acknowledged that their access to services will improve and sought to identify further opportunities for local development. They also highlighted gravel extraction from local creeks and rivers as a concern, questioning whether requirements for Environmental Impact Assessments were being met.
We experienced another issue in the village of Wairiki, where the tap water was visibly discoloured by soil particles after a night of heavy rain. The village chief took us to their water source, a borehole around 20-30 meters below a sloping area that had been cleared for the road. He spoke to the foreman, who set off to investigate further.
Big changes are bringing new opportunities and challenges to communities in Bua. This visit certainly showed how vital and immediate these are, and how important it is for communities to understand and address them in order to protect the local ecosystems on which they rely.
We boarded the ferry at Natovi and set off for Nabouwalu just after dawn, embarking on a week of workshops to help develop community-led management plans in the districts of Vuya and Dama in the province of Bua.
The ferry seems to get busier every time, with a notable range of digging, drilling and other machines as well as the returning trucks having swapped their cargo of dalo for a range of goods from Suva. Seats were at a premium with four full buses aboard, many returning from the ordination of the new Archbishop of Suva. I was too excited and distracted by the scenery to sleep anyway.
The workshops were the first of their kind in Vuya (hosted in Wairiki village) and Dama (Dama village) and followed on from our recent village awareness sessions. They were well attended by a range of men (including chiefs and district/village headmen), women and young people. This included Ratu Semi, Assistant Roko Tui from Bua Provincial Office, and Pita the National Trust Ranger from Yadua island, which is also a sanctuary for the critically endangered Fiji crested iguana.
Following the sevusevu (formal presentation of our intentions and request for acceptance into the village) and introductions, the Provincial Administrator for Bua outlined local development projects and opportunities including a range of potential tikina-based income generating activities. Ilia Nakoro from Fiji Museum then provided an overview of cultural heritage conservation issues, giving the workshop a holistic focus in the context of local sustainable development.
Participants mapped local water sources, land uses and threats as well as existing and proposed community protected areas. Conceptual modeling exercises helped them identify targets, threats and strategies for ecosystem-based management. Initial activities and local management rules were then proposed in relation to some strategies as people became enthused to take action.
On our second night in each village, they lifted an ongoing church tabu on drinking kava. Sitting around the kava bowl in Dama, the talatala (minister) explained that he was happy to see the social instincts and cultural norms prevail, suggesting that such occasions are central to the collective spirit which makes communities strong. These were great social occasions, establishing friendships, reaffirming traditional relationships as well as cementing commitment and sharing knowledge.
Ilia and KK were especially happy as they left, protectively cradling the precious yasi (sandlewood) samplings they had been given to take home.
As he welcomed us into his village, I was again struck by the friendly and down-to-earth manner of the Tui Wairiki (chief of Wairiki village), Akuila Qio Turaganiqali.
We first met in November, when Akuila accepted his nomination to become the Coordinator for newly formed Bua Yaubula Management Support Team (BYMST). Since then he has also become the Northern Division representative for the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area network (FLMMA). Very much active in each of these roles, Akuila quickly became a regular correspondent, a close ally and a good friend.
Akuila was born in Wairiki, but spent most of his childhood in Suva where he attended school, Fiji Institute of Technology and the University of the South Pacific. Following a career in public service, working for the Department of Agriculture, Land Transport Authority, the Ministry of Health, Public Works Department and Fiji Military Services, Akuila and his wife Teresea resided in Suva until the death of his father (the former Tui Wairiki) in 2011. As is customary for the oldest child, he left his life in the city and returned to take on the chiefly role in the village.
“I had visited regularly over the years, so I knew that things had changed in Wairiki since I was a boy.” remembers Akuila. “After I returned I got a better understanding of the challenges we face here. Our culture, traditions and natural resources are being eroded. Developments like the new road, woodchip mill and logging can help us by providing employment and income but we need to protect the environment we rely on for our daily needs. We also want our grandchildren inherit a bountiful vanua (incorporating the natural resources of the land and ocean).”
Quickly recognizing the scale of these challenges, Akuila set about linking with other communities and partners to address them. “That is why I became active with BYMST and FLMMA.” he recalls “They provide a way of accessing knowledge, support and resources from NGOs whilst helping communities to plan and act together. It is an honor to play a role and I encourage everyone to contribute towards our shared goals.”
With five children and eight grandchildren whom he visits regularly in Suva and New Zealand, one question remained unanswered as Akuila returned from an early morning at the plantation to help lead our workshop – just where does he find the time?
World Oceans Day, June 8, 2013
“Did you see any sea cucumbers?” I asked Ron as he struggled to get back aboard the inflatable tender.
“What about you, Wili?” I questioned.
He simply shook his head.
Day after day as we are being towed around the inner and outer reef systems of the Yasayasamoala Group of the Lau Islands, we are coming up with zeros on our data sheets. It’s disappointing work.
In the meantime, tin drying racks in the villages of Totoya and Matuku islands have been full of the critters. So far, Wili Saladrau, from Fiji Department of Fisheries, recorded over 700 individual sea cucumber (in the dried form called “bêche-de-mer”). This includes over 60 Holothuria fuscogilva (white teatfish) that can sell for over US$50 (FJ$100) a piece to specialty buyers in Fiji.
So are the local fishers just better at finding the sea cucumbers? Probably. If I was getting paid that much money per individual harvested, I’m sure that I would “get my eye in” much quicker in order to be able to spot them on the reef. But still, the densities of sea cucumber populations are running dangerously low.
Wili, Ron Vave of the University of the South Pacific, and I were asked by the Lau Provincial Office to do an assessment of the status of sea cucumber populations during the Living Oceans Foundation Fiji expedition throughout the Lau island group. Bêche-de-mer is a major source of income to coastal communities in Lau, but there is concern that the populations are on the precipice of collapse.
Serial depletion of sea cucumbers has occurred throughout the world to feed a growing middle class market in Asia, hungry for bêche-de-mer. While bêche-de-mer have been traded for at least 1000 years, the value of the catch has increased enormously over the past two to three decades as species are exploited and crash, thus becoming rarer commodities.
Sea cucumbers are long, tubular benthic echinoderms (in the same phylum as sea urchins) belonging to the class Holothuroidae. They were once found in most temperate and tropic benthic habitats worldwide, ranging from shallow intertidal areas to the deep sea. The majority of sea cucumbers move across the seafloor ingesting detritus and other reef gunk, thus cleaning the sediments and potentially reducing the spread of harmful algae. Because they can grow to be quite large, and many are conspicuously shaped and coloured, sea cucumbers are extremely vulnerable to fishing. In addition, population recovery is hampered by their slow growth rates and long time to reach maturity. Furthermore, when populations become too sparse and sea cucumbers cannot sense other individuals of the same species, they will fail to breed, resulting in local population collapse.
There is general lack of awareness of these population dynamics in Fiji. Although use of SCUBA for fishing is prohibited under the Fiji Fisheries Act, the Fiji Department of Fisheries has been issuing exemptions to traders. These middlemen supply local community members with gear and possibly some training if they are lucky – and then the race is on to catch the last of the sea cucumbers. Young men are diving 50, 60, 70, and sometimes over 80 m to find the remaining individuals from high value species. They are dying fairly regularly. Others are suffering debilitating side effects from the bends. I met one man during surveys in western Bua Province in November 2012 who was relegated to growing watermelons after becoming incapacitated from diving related injuries.
In Lau, most of the fishers are free diving, but apparently they are quite talented and can easily reach depths between 20-30 m. Most fishers that we have interviewed so far are happy with the status of the sea cucumber fishery as they are fetching high prices and the money covers household expenses, church contributions, and higher education fees for children, as well as offers the ability to purchase some luxury items. But few of the fishers seem aware that the good fortune may soon run out. What will happen then when there are few other options for earning income out in these remote islands?
There may be potential for populations to recover if management action is taken now. It likely will not be sufficient to set up locally managed marine areas with a few no-take areas. The sea cucumbers are already so widely dispersed that they may already be unable to reproduce. More active management may be required. This could entail finding wild caught individuals and placing them in close proximity to one another within pens in the no-take areas to encourage their reproduction and dispersal of their larvae into the open areas that everyone can access to fish. This strategy should optimally be coupled with minimum size limits so that people do not remove all of the young sea cucumbers before they reach maturity.
In honor of World Oceans Day, I ponder these issues in order to raise hope by coming up with creative solutions. Over the next few years, the Wildlife Conservation Society and other members of the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area network aim to try out several different types of management with communities to see what works, what doesn’t work, and why. Ideally we want local communities to have a better understanding of sustainable extraction rates so that they will be able to maintain livelihood benefits into the future.
I’m having flashbacks. Two years ago on this very day, I was sitting on board a similar-sized yacht, anchored in the lagoon of Totoya Island in the Yasayasamoala Group of the Lau Islands. In June 2011, I was part of an expedition team from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Pacific Blue Foundation, Waitt Institute, Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Wetlands International-Oceania to survey Totoya’s Sacred Reef.[Editor’s note: See blog from the 2011 expedition at: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/08/expedition-to-the-sacred-reef-of-fiji-6/]
In honour of World Ocean’s Day, Roko Josefa Cinavilakeba, the high chief of the Yasayasamoala group, redeclared Totoya’s Daveta Tabu protected. In was indeed a great day for the communities of Totoya and those here to participate in the experience.
But time flies fast and furious in the Pacific. Flash forward two years and I’m back to Totoya again, this time on board the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation’s research vessel, the Golden Shadow. In 2008, I wrote a letter to the Foundation, inviting them to come to Fiji as part of their Global Expedition (http://www.sciencewithoutborders.org/science-without-borders/) to investigate the major threats and impacts to coral reefs around the world, with a view to providing data to help innovate new management solutions. It only took them five years to respond – and now, here we are, floating in the remote waters of Fiji’s Lau Province.
The Living Oceans Foundation brings a wealth of experience, knowledge and scientific tools to study coral reef systems, including the ability to map large sections of reefs which provides important information on natural resource inventories for management. When I approached other organizations in Fiji about where the Living Oceans Foundation should focus these efforts, almost unanimously people said Lau. The remoteness and limited options for transport to Lau makes it an unusually challenging place to conduct repeated surveys to assess changes in reef resources – unless you have access to a superyacht, that is.And thanks to Prince Khaled bin Sultan of the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia, we do.
I’ve suggested to the research team to resurvey locations on Totoya, Matuku and Kabara that were previously surveyed in the 1990s and 2000s by researchers from the University of Newcastle in England, as well as the sites that we surveyed inside and adjacent to Totoya Sacred Reef in 2011.
In the meantime, myself, Ron Vave of the University of the South Pacific, and Willie Saladrau of the Fiji Department of Fisheries are searching far and wide to assess the status of sea cucumbers in this region, which are being increasingly exploited for cash income by local communities. Sea cucumbers are easy targets – with limited mobility, they can’t get away from a keen freediver. And the perception is that they are just money sitting on the reef. In reality, sea cucumbers have an important ecosystem function to regulate the amount of nutrients in coral reef sediments, which likely keeps algal blooms under control (as I described in my blog on our surveys of Western Bua: http://wcsfiji.org.fj/coral-reef-resilience-surveys-in-western-bua/). So far, Willie, Ron and I have not had much luck finding the critters – but we are hopeful that some are still out there to sustain the livelihoods of the local communities.
Duty calls – time to get back in the water and then on to a meke session in Tovu village.