Reflections on organizing the SCB Oceania Fiji conference

Author Stacy Jupiter (in blue mini-dress) with co-organizers Sangeeta Mangubhai and Rebecca Weeks and participants of a science writing and presenting workshop for young Pacific scientists

Author Stacy Jupiter (in blue mini-dress) with co-organizers Sangeeta Mangubhai and Rebecca Weeks and participants of a science writing and presenting workshop for young Pacific scientists

About 3 years ago, fellow WCS colleague and now President-elect of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) James Watson asked me to “throw my name in the hat” to get on the SCB Oceania Board.

Having no idea what this entailed, I penned a quick biography, shot it over to James, and thought nothing more about it until a few months later when he sent me a congratulatory note saying “You’ve been elected!”

His next words were, “We should have a conference in Fiji.”

Uh oh, I sighed. Here we go.

I have some experience running conferences. WCS Fiji ran two very successful Fiji Conservation Science Forums in 2009 and 2011. But those were easy and local.

For the SCB Conference, we had the challenge of developing a website and portal to accept registration, developing scientific content and associated workshops, inviting interesting plenary speakers, fundraising to support attendance by young Pacific Islanders, and ensuring there was enough money in the coffers to pay for all of the conference goodies (e.g. water bottles, bags, name badges, food, and evening entertainment – a must!).

The first thing to do was round up some help. I begged and arm-twisted a very capable team to form a local organizing committee, including the generous Gilianne Brodie and ebullient Randy Thaman of the University of the South Pacific (USP). The incredibly organized Tamara Osborne arranged for a team of 50 USP student volunteers to handle all of those nitpicky logistical issues and deal with the inevitable barrage of questions from confused participants during the event. Our dedicated student committee members, Moana Waqa and Aman Narayan, planned a fantastic student evening networking event. Our own Sangeeta Mangubhai went through round after round of refining the scientific program to ensure that we had well-matched content in sessions. Swee Kok knocked on doors all over town to wrangle up items for our silent auction to support local NGO NatureFiji-MareqetiViti in their work to develop a national park on Taveuni. Meanwhile, our two jacks-of-all-trade, Dwain Qalovaki and Mata St. John stayed up late into the evenings hoping, wishing, praying that everything would go to plan when the first event of the Society for Conservation Biology 2014 Fiji conference opened on July 7.

Some of the 50 USP student volunteers who so capably assisted at the SCBO 2014 Fiji conference

Some of the 50 USP student volunteers who so capably assisted at the SCBO 2014 Fiji conference

Having lost nearly all of my weekends and evenings since February to conference planning, I was at the end of a very thin rope by the time the first workshops began. I spent most of Sunday night awake after dreaming of lecture theatres getting flooded by tsunamis – clearly a projection of my internalized fear that utter disaster would befall us.

But the floods didn’t come. The projectors all worked (for the most part). People showed up who were registered. We had over 200 participants in total, coming from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India, USA, Samoa, Kiribati, French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Tonga and . . . of course, Fiji!

The most exciting part of all was seeing our Pacific students and young conservationists shine during the event. Their presentations ranged from shark biology, to conservation of bats and herpetofauna in Solomon Islands, to understanding home ranges of cuscus in Papua New Guinea, to cetacean songs in Fiji and Tonga, to distributions of coral disease, and much, much more.

So was all of the pain worth it? I can truly say that seeing the future of Pacific Island conservation made me forget about all of those dark hours fiddling with font size on the conference program. During the week I was able to develop new networks, showcase our good work from WCS Fiji, and show off what makes Fiji so special.

Vinaka vakalevu to all that were involved in organizing this truly successful event. We look forward to the next SCB Oceania conference in Brisbane in 2016 (just please don’t put us on the organizing committee!).

Dying for Fiji’s Sea Cucumbers

by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiative Fellow Amy West

Commercial divers operating out of Vuya District, Bua Province, with a prickly redfish and giant clam.

Commercial divers operating out of Vuya District, Bua Province, with a prickly redfish and giant clam.

Redfish, Greenfish, Blackfish.
Pinkfish, Curryfish, Lollyfish.

They sound like Dr. Seuss characters and certainly look like they should be. Yet these sausage-shaped, rubbery animals stippled in fleshy bumps are not fish at all, but an invertebrate in the group that includes sea stars, sea urchins and sand dollars. Sea cucumbers, referred to as “bêche-de-mer” or “trepang” when sold as dried food, are largely motionless creatures, which is why divers scoop hundreds of them up daily to export to Asia. A single high value individual in Fiji can fetch about $80 US, notes one report.

Sea cucumbers are not a new food craze; the Chinese have eaten them at least since the 1600s and sought this delicacy from Fiji since the early 1800s. Today, the increasing market demand and the push to dive deeper for these invertebrates and start new fisheries in other countries have sent stocks declining worldwide. Some have disappeared locally in Pacific Island nations, and in Fiji, divers are actually dying for them.

Sea cucumbers are often found just offshore, in sea grass beds, on the sandy seafloor, or wedged within reefs. Their slow nature and proximity to shore encouraged an easy harvest, particularly without a specific management plan or an enforced licensing system in Fiji. They’ve been taken before they can mature, or thinned to such low densities that detecting the chemical cues to spawn may not occur, making reproduction and recovery unlikely in many areas. Pacific island countries such as Samoa that declared a moratorium on bêche-de-mer exports have seen no recovery for some species. In fact, moratoriums in other countries have placed the burden on Fiji, which harvests 27 sea cucumber species and has seen an increase in export companies. Remote areas or deeper waters, where species such as amberfish or tigerfish would be naturally protected by depth, are now also targets. To reach them, fishermen deploy sea cucumber bombs (heavy lines with hooks). They have also increased their use of underwater breathing apparatus (UBA), which is normally banned, but is used illegally or exempted in many cases by the Fijian government.

To meet the costs of dive gear that is often lent by middlemen and the pressure of quotas, the harvesters may extend their time underwater, disregarding dive protocol, which can lead to death or paralysis from decompression sickness. The Fiji Times reported in April of 2013, “over the past eight years, 18 villagers from Naviti died from the use of UBAs while more than 12 developed partial paralysis.” Household interviews conducted on some of Fiji’s islands also confirmed deaths and injuries from SCUBA diving for bêche-de-mer. Numerous local newspaper articles document this problem, and it’s likely many more accidents go unreported, particularly in the outer islands.

Read more on Mongabay.org here: http://news.mongabay.com/2014/0623-sri-west-fiji-sea-cucumbers.html