Understanding the role communities play in the sea cucumber fishery

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By Sangeeta Mangubhai

We are currently in Natokalau village, where we will be based for a week doing our value chain analysis surveys in different villages in Kubulau district, in Bua Province. Margaret Fox, Wildlife Conservation Society’s dynamic social scientist, has been leading the surveys with Tevita Vodivodi from the Department of Fisheries and our lively volunteers. Each day they sit down with fishers from different villages and ask them questions that help us understand their role and engagement in this fishery.

Questions vary from when they go fishing for sea cucumbers, how often and with whom, to questions relating to their catch and how much they earn from selling different species of sea cucumbers. We try and find out if they process the sea cucumbers themselves or prefer to sell the live animals to middlemen or exporters directly. Importantly, we ask how much the money they receive from sea cucumbers contributes to their fortnightly or monthly income. This allows us to understand how dependent they are on the resource, and if they have other options available to them, such as agriculture or copra.

Quality of the processing and the final product are important in this fishery and can impact on the income local communities make from their sea cucumbers. Villagers that know how, and how long to cook sea cucumbers without causing their skins to blister and break open get a better price for their product. Those that know how to gut, salt and dry the sea cucumbers get an even higher price, if it is done properly.

What has been interesting to learn is how some villagers operate individually, and others operate collectively. The ones that are operating collectively as a village, strictly controlling tabu areas and the timing of harvests appear to be doing much better. The money they earn gets used to provide facilities (e.g. schools, church) and village projects where everyone benefits. They also have stronger bargaining powers when it comes to selling their product, and more incentive to manage their fishery sustainably.

As Margaret and I reflected on this, she reminded me of an old slogan that was used in Fiji a few years ago that appears to be alive here in Kubulau – “Conservation Begins With Communities.”

Natuvu Village – a sea cucumber success story, now vulnerable to poaching

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By Sangeeta Mangubhai

Our first two survey days have been spent in Natuvu village in Wailevu West, in Cakaudrove Province. We chose this village because we had heard the local communities have been actively managing their sea cucumber resources through tabu areas (temporal closures) for many years now. With some initial support from the Department of Fisheries and James Cook University in 2009, the communities received sea pens and brood stock of the sea cucumber Holothuria scabra (known locally as dairo and by traders as sandfish), to help revive their depleted stock.

These sea pens were kept in a protected area and fiercely protected by village fish wardens. Community members monitored the growth and mortality of their brood stock until they were big enough to put out into the wild where they could feed and reproduce unrestricted. We were here to listen and learn more!

We got up at 5:30am and headed out as the sun started rising to survey Natuvu village’s fishing grounds. We specifically designed our surveys so that we sampled both inside and outside the large tabu area that ran from the beach to the outer reef, and will remain closed for three years. There were two questions we wanted to answer. Firstly, we wanted to know if the tabu areas were working and were protecting this core sea cucumber stock. Secondly, we wanted to know if there was natural spill over of sea cucumbers from closed areas into fished areas.

The team jumped into the water with much anticipation and were delighted to see dairo throughout the tabu area, as well as a number of other species which have become depleted throughout Fiji. Most of the animals were out feeding reminding me of how important these animals are in our ecosystems as they sift through sediment, keeping it healthy and well aerated, consuming algae so that it does not grow out of control. However, we noticed that the abundance of sea cucumbers were highest closest to the village and the further out you go, the more depleted the tabu area was.

This made sense when we talked to the chief and other members of the community in the evening. Poachers have also heard about the success of Natuvu and come into the area to steal sea cucumbers with little regard and respect for the efforts of these communities to manage their fishery sustainably. I saw lights out at sea when I woke briefly in the middle of the night, after everyone had gone to sleep – I had that awful sinking feeling that the poachers were back.

Luckily this has not deterred the villagers at Natuvu, who love sharing their success story with us. And we are not the only ones listening. The two villages either side of Natuvu have been listening and learning, and have now their own tabu areas in place to protect and rehabilitate their sea cucumber populations. It just re-emphasizes a lesson I learned very early on in my career – the best way for communities to learn good management, is by sharing their own successes with each other.

Value Chain Analysis – what is it, and why is it important?

By Sangeeta Mangubhai

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Department of Fisheries staff members are partnering up to undertake a value chain analysis of the sea cucumber fishery in Fiji. While it might sound complicated it really isn’t. Basically a value chain is the full range of activities required to bring a product from its conception, through the different phases of production, to delivery to final customers. What this means for sea cucumbers, it is the full range of activities from the harvesting of the sea cucumbers, through to the processing, packaging, transportation, and to its final consumption by people, whether it be in Fiji or overseas.

A value chain analysis helps us better understand the key consumers and how they like their product For example, what species do consumers want, and is there a particular standard they expect? Value chain analysis also helps us identify who are the key players in the industry and what are their roles and relationships to each other.

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Armed with this information, the Department of Fisheries, can work with all those involved in the fishery to identify opportunities and constraints to industry growth and competitiveness in Fiji. And ultimately if we understand how markets work around particular fisheries like sea cucumbers, we can take the right actions or put the right policies in place that ensures our fisheries are sustainable.
To launch this importance piece of work for Fiji, WCS and Department of Fisheries participated in a two-day training in Suva on the main island of Viti Levu, and Labasa on the island of Vanua Levu. A questionnaire has specifically been developed to capture information on the sea cucumber fishery. The survey will be conducted throughout many of the districts in Bua Province, and one of the districts in the adjacent Cakaudrove Province.

There is much excitement amongst the team as we head out to Natuvu village, loaded up with our questionnaires, snorkeling gear and food (and toilet paper, because there are some things I cannot live without!!). Internet permitting, I will be live blogging from the field sharing with you our findings, and what we learn about this important fishery in Fiji.

Not just a map lady

WCS-Fiji G.I.S Officer Ingrid Qauqau

By Ingrid Qauqau

Most of my colleagues and friends call me the “Map Lady”. I often think back of how I started my career as a map lady with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Fiji. I graduated from the University of the South Pacific with an undergraduate degree in Environmental Science in 2002.

I remember applying for jobs in governments and non-profit organizations knowing very well that it was challenging finding work opportunities in Fiji. I was delighted when WCS offered me the opportunity to work for them as their GIS Officer. GIS stands for Geographical Information System, and it is a computerized data management system that is used to capture, store, manage, retrieve and display maps or spatial information.

It generally involves using different software to create and produce maps. For the past 12 years, I’ve been able to do what I love: produce and make maps for all WCS Fiji’s conservation projects.

An example of a map done by WCS G.I.S Officer Ingrid Qauqau

Knowing how to read a map isn’t difficult. It is more challenging however, to create a map that can be easily understood and used by others. Maps allow us to see the big picture (e.g. the whole area) and to plan and take action together in targeted and effective ways. There are different types of maps for different purposes. For example, there are roads maps for drivers that demarcate highways and byways, tourist maps show famous landmarks, topographic maps for features elevation gradients, and also maps for pilots show air routes and terminal areas.

The maps I make generally include natural features such as, land-use and agricultural areas, soil types, forests, wetlands and mangroves. The maps incorporate survey data showing areas where species biodiversity is highest and where rare endemic species reside. Creating map for communities and different stakeholders is about delivering to them a picture of the resources that they own and hold dear to their hearts.

These maps are intended to help them better assess and manage their resources both now and in the future. I also take care to ensure they are clear and easy on the eye, helping people understand local ecosystems and threats in order to develop appropriate management strategies.

So I am not just a map lady. I realized that my role is critical to help support conservation work looking after our environment and future generation. It is more than just drawing lines. Where you see a map I see an essential tool for management planning. My maps help communities to identify the resources that they have and make decisions about how to better manage them.

Searching for the elusive dragonfish in Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra Seascape

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Words by Margaret Fox

The sea cucumber has received much hype recently within the Pacific region despite its docile existence. It is an animal that resembles a warty cucumber and is a close relative of the starfish and sea urchin. It is found on most shallow ocean floors, coral reefs and seagrass beds.

But why has this innocuous and (to some) physically unattractive group of marine creatures become a talking point in a number of the Pacific’s coastal fishery forums? It is simply because they have been over exploited in the Pacific to feed Asia’s insatiable appetite for seafood. As concerns grow to address this fast dwindling resource, there has also been an urgency to take stock of Fiji’s sea cucumber populations in a bid to sustainably manage this fishery before it is too late.

In March 2014, Didi and I packed our bags and headed to Ovalau Island (in Lomaiviti Province) to begin our sea cucumber surveys together with a group of scientists that were concurrently conducting fish and coral reef assessments. Not surprisingly, given the proximity to the capital Suva, there were very few sea cucumbers in the lagoon. However, our sea cucumber surveys in Ovalau were just the beginning of a challenging and adventurous trip that literally took us all around Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra Seascape.

From Ovalau we journeyed on to the Ra Province, on the main island of Viti Levu, and set-up base at Nabukadra village with the local NGO Partners in Community Development Fiji. This was the first time the villagers of Nabukadra hosted a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) marine survey team and they were filled with much excitement. According to them, the quaint village of Nabukadra seems “lost in a past era and rarely receives visitors.” It was in Nabukadra where we witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of over-harvesting sea cucumbers. Even tabus (traditional temporal or seasonal closures) were not immune from fishing pressure. The once vibrant reefs near Nabukadra were covered in algae and sediment, possibly due to a combination of sedimentation from land based impacts, and from the removal of too many sea cucumbers. Most people do not realise this simple animal is a bottom feeder, and therefore plays an important role in our marine environment churning over sand and muddy sediments, to keep areas clean.

From Nabukadra Village, we motored across to Bua Province on the Vanua Levu. Many of the districts including Bua District have been subject to intense harvesting of sea cucumbers. A number of companies use SCUBA, so they can dive to greater depths to find sea cucumbers. Sadly, this district has had a number of its local fishers get decompression sickness through the improper use of SCUBA gear. Decompression sickness occurs when divers dive too deep, stay too long underwater, or come up to the surface too quickly. This is a growing problem in Fiji, and one that requires urgent action.

As we travelled to some of the more remote places in Bua Province, we were relieved to find areas with healthy numbers of the sea cucumber known as sandfish (Holothuria scabra), or dairo in Fijian. This species is currently banned from export (to protect it as a local food source), but it is regularly found within export consignments due to its lucrative value in Asian markets. In one district our team “struck gold”! There we recorded several varieties of sea cucumber species in high densities, including the elusive dragonfish (Stichopus horrens). We learnt why this particularly district has such healthy stocks. There had been conflicts in the past over this resource to the point where violence erupted. As a result sea cucumber harvesting was banned, giving the opportunities for the populations to recover.

Our final destination was Kubulau, where WCS has been working for a decade now. We found good number of sea cucumbers inside community managed tabu areas, especially where communities fiercely guard their natural resources from poaching. We learnt that that some villages were deliberately moving sea cucumbers from areas opened to fishing into tabu areas to increase their protection and to help repopulate their fishing grounds with these animals.

It was here that experienced first-hand how successful management, a strong sense of stewardship and the willingness to forego short-term gains for long-terms goals, was paramount for communities to successfully maintain this fishery.