Supporting women fishers in Fiji through innovative partnerships

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Mud crabs (Scylla serrata) are commonly found in every municipal market in Fiji, with large adults fetching upwards of FJ$100/crab. These animals are traditionally harvested and sold by rural women from coastal areas. Commonly known as qari, mud crabs are considered a Fijian delicacy reserved for special occasions.

However, over harvesting though has led to declining stocks and an increase in sale of undersized mud crabs, as well as increased prices as restaurants and hotels also compete for a share of this dwindling commodity. This fishery appears to be at a tipping point, and without intervention we anticipate this species may become locally extinct in many parts of the country. There is very little data and information to enable the sustainable management of this important fishery in Fiji.

Last month, a new partnership was formed between the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Women in Fisheries Network – Fiji (WiFN – Fiji) and Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area Network (FLMMA) to improve the livelihoods and management of the Fiji mud crab fishery using good science, sound management practices and business entrepreneurship. Supported by the Flora Family Foundation and David and Lucille Packard Foundation, and in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries and Ministry for Women, we will support and promote women-led businesses based on sustainable harvest and management of mud crabs in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape.

WCS – Fiji Country Director, Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai says “the Wildlife Conservation Society will provide scientific and technical support to strengthen existing community management through a direct engagement with women involved in fisheries. This is the Fiji Program’s first gender focused project and I am excited about the potential this presents for our Fijian women in coastal areas.”

The partnership between the three organisations aims to nurture the growth of at least three women-led businesses based on a sustainable model of mud crab harvesting and management; explore the social, environmental and economic value of Fijian women in fisheries and eventually expand this business model ambitiously across 80 more coastal communities in country.

A promising facet of the project is the fact that is aligns with existing efforts by the Fijian Government as well as women-led organisations to advance women’s income generating ability as well as create working models on natural resource management that address the country’s economic growth aspirations.

According to the Crab Company (Fiji) Limited which is the country’s leading crab business, the sector is valued at less than $0.5M FJD for the domestic market and has potential to expand further to tap into export markets however stock levels restrict expansion beyond domestic consumption.

Words by Dwain Qalovaki.

The bumpy road to a conservation career

Recently, I had the privilege of accepting an Early Career Conservationist award from the Society for Conservation Biology at their biennial congress held this year in Montpellier, France. In preparing for my acceptance speech, I spent some time reflecting back on how I came to be working for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Fiji on ridge to reef management issues.

One might say that I had some fairly inauspicious beginnings as a conservationist. When I was twelve year old, I asked my parents if I could paint a rainforest meets reef mural on my bedroom wall. They surprisingly said yes, not wanting to stifle my burgeoning artistic talent.

But this is where I made my first blunder as a conservationist. Growing up near Boston, I hadn’t really visited any rainforests or reefs, and in these pre-internet days, I drew inspiration for our trusty World Book Encyclopaedia for images of different tropical birds and reef fish. What I ended up with was an ecologist’s nightmare with scarlet macaws from the Amazon, sulphur crested cockatoos from Australia, and toucan from the Neotropics living in my forest, while my reef was inhabited with Caribbean and Indo-Pacific species cavorting together.

Stacy's 12 year old artistic talents on display in her bedroom mural

Stacy’s 12 year old artistic talents on display in her bedroom mural

My second real conservation blunder came when I joined the U.S. Peace Corps and was assigned to be a rural fisheries extension officer in Gabon, Central Africa, where I spent two and half year teaching rural farmers how to raise non-native tilapia. What I learned about these fish was what makes them such successful aquaculture species also makes them very successful invaders in other systems.

Stacy as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon harvesting tilapia

Stacy as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon harvesting tilapia

This really hit home when I moved to Fiji when I started working for WCS in 2008, first as an Associate Conservation Scientist and then as the Fiji Program Director in 2009. The first paper that I published using Fiji data showed 2 factors strongly associated with lower species richness and abundance of native freshwater fish species: loss of forest cover and presence of non-native tilapia.

After WCS put out a press release on the findings, the trouble really started. Who would have thought that these fish that I raised myself would nearly get me kicked out of the country? A Fiji journalist somehow misquoted me saying that I called tilapia “aquatic cockroaches” and the Fiji Government threatened to revoke my work permit because “tilapia are here to stay”.

A big lesson that we learned from this experience is that correlation does not equal causation. The lead author Aaron Jenkins and I had to make abundantly clear in an editorial to the Fiji Times that we were not implying that tilapia were killing native fish, merely that their presence is associated with the decline. Moreover, we agreed that tilapia can be a very good aquaculture fish where it has already established. We were only suggesting keeping it out of near pristine systems where it had not yet invaded. After much kava drinking with Fisheries Department staff, we were allowed to stay in Fiji, much to my great relief.

But fortunately, my time in Peace Corps in Gabon taught me how to deal with adversity and unexpected challenges. We actually used the results from this study as one of the cornerstones in communicating with local communities why it is important to manage ridge to reef systems holistically. At meetings in rural villages to discuss the rationale for integrated management, I actually saw grown men and women well up in tears when they realized that the forestry and farming practices they were involved with were potentially affecting the very food and water that they need for their families’ survival.

Getting stuck in the mud in Gabon helped Stacy learn how to deal with adversity

Getting stuck in the mud in Gabon helped Stacy learn how to deal with adversity

Over the past seven years, I have spent several months a year living and working in remote villages in Fiji to help local communities to design integrated management plans and better understand the effectiveness of their management actions. This has really been the most rewarding part about my job. I fell in love with working with local communities while living in Gabon, and it has been amazing to me what local people can accomplish with a vision and dedication to conservation and management.

Spending time in local communities has been the highlight of Stacy's experience with WCS

Spending time in local communities has been the highlight of Stacy’s experience with WCS

As such, while it was a great honour to be recognized by the Society for Conservation Biology for my work in Oceania, in truth I have mostly just been a conduit for delivering information to local communities and governments faced with tough decisions about managing a myriad of threats affecting their biodiversity and livelihoods. It has been a privilege to interact with these decision makers in Fiji and across the Pacific who are the true champions of biodiversity and stewards of the Earth’s resources.

Green energy powers the Suva marathon

Former Pacific sprint queen Makelesi Bulikiobo and Robert Kafoa lead the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape team at the Suva Marathon. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Former Pacific sprint queen Makelesi Bulikiobo and Robert Kafoa lead the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape team at the Suva Marathon. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

As the starter gun fired in the rain on a windy August morning, 800 runners set out along the capital city’s sea wall as part of the South Pacific’s greatest road race, the Suva Marathon.

Even the young came out to the Suva Marathon to run in support of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Even the young came out to the Suva Marathon to run in support of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

A draw card of the marathon which saw runners complete the full marathon (40.2km), half marathon (21.1km), and 10 km fun run was the inclusion of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape and the Drautabua Acmopyle as the event’s sponsored charities.

Camari Kena and Kini Koto ran the Suva Marathon in support of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited.

Camari Kena and Kini Koto ran the Suva Marathon in support of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited.

Team captain Dwain Qalovaki said, “As part of our team, notable Fijians from across the sporting and media sectors ran to build public support for the protection of land and sea between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu”.

Pacific Games Triple Jump Gold medalist Eugene Vollmer lent his support toward the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Pacific Games Triple Jump Gold medalist Eugene Vollmer lent his support toward the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

High performance Fijian athletes participating in the Suva Marathon included the Pacific Games 2015 Shot Put Gold medalist Milika Tuivanuavou, Squash Bronze medalist Andra Whiteside, Athletics dual medalist Younis Bese, Triple Jump Gold medalist Eugene Vollmer, Cocoa Cola Fiji Games athletics champion Helena Young and former Pacific sprint queen Makelesi Bulikiobo, who still holds unbroken records in the region.

Vatu-i-Ra Seascape stakeholders came out in full force during the Suva Marathon to support the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Vatu-i-Ra Seascape stakeholders came out in full force during the Suva Marathon to support the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

“As we continue to grow the national conversation on being faithful stewards of our beautiful environment, engagement with Fijians from outside the conservation sector is critical. We are humbled that the athletes that joined us took time out of their training schedules to help raise awareness on the need to protect an area of land and sea that is closely linked to our culture, livelihoods and wellbeing”, said Mr. Qalovaki.

Fijian broadcast personalities Mervin Singh and Michelle Tevita - Singh running the Suva Marathon. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Fijian broadcast personalities Mervin Singh and Michelle Tevita – Singh running the Suva Marathon. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Other notable Fijian runners included Miss Fiji Nanise Rainima, former Miss Fiji and Miss South Pacific Merewalesi Nailatikau, Niu Wave Magazine Deputy Editor Dawn Gibson as well as broadcast personalities Mervin Singh and Michelle Tevita – Singh.

He added that while support for the campaign at the Suva marathon was exceptional, conservation partners like the Department of Fisheries, Nature Fiji/Mareqeti Viti, World Wide Fund for Nature and the Wildlife Conservation Society also fielded runners was also overwhelming. This brought over 60 participants running for the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape.

NatureFiji/MareqetiViti's mascot 'Drautabua' ran the Suva Marathon which captured the attention of the young and young at heart. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

NatureFiji/MareqetiViti’s mascot ‘Drautabua’ ran the Suva Marathon which captured the attention of the young and young at heart. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

“Our partnership with the Suva Marathon has been about creating awareness on this amazing blue – green jewel of forest and blue ocean. This special place is home to over 120 endemic plant and 1,000 fish species. This is a place worth fighting for so that it can be enjoyed by many more generations to come”, Mr Qalovaki concluded.

Northern fish wardens meet

A snap shot of the largest town in Fiji's second largest island, Labasa.

A snap shot of the largest town in Fiji’s second largest island, Labasa.

Words by Yashika Nand

The month of August brings us closer to an event the Wildlife Conservation Society, Department of Fisheries and Fiji Environmental Law Association have been planning for months – the hosting of a forum for community fish wardens and enforcement agencies in the Northern division of Fiji.

Supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the forum aims at strengthening dialogue and coordination of enforcement efforts on coastal fisheries. Fish wardens will be coming from all three provinces in Vanua Levu. The forum will provide an opportunity to better understand fisheries regulations and hear from the fish wardens themselves about what the real challenges they face monitoring and patrolling their community fishing grounds.

If successful, we hope that the forum serves as a valuable platform for the Department of Fisheries, Fiji Police, prosecutors and other law and enforcement agencies to both more closely together to develop tangible solutions to address illegal fishing activities in our coastal waters.

The workshop is timely as we continue to advance the effective protection of 466 existing marine protected areas within 135 traditional fishing areas in Fiji. These locally managed marine areas have varied levels of enforcement in place. There are just too few people and resources to monitor our vast seas.

Looking forward I am optimistic of the fruits (or should that be fish!) that this forum will bear. If we can work collectively, and better support our community fish wardens we can to improve enforcement around illegal fishing, by supporting community management rules, stop poaching, reducing undersized catch, and following restrictions on fishing gears. All these things will have a positive impact on community tabu areas and improve the state of our coastal fisheries resources. Well, that is what I hope for!