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Kini Koto (aka KK) is a WCS Fiji Field Officer and our resident freshwater expert. He often performs the traditional ceremonies carried out at the start and end of our village visits or workshops - the sevusevu and tatau.

Getting my fins certified

I couldn’t wait to finish of my exams and head down the West to encounter what I would express as some of those best moments in the history of my life. I slept at Nadi and couldn’t wait for dawn as I will be traveling down the Yasawa Group of Islands where smashing sunsets are often experienced.

I was placed in Nanuya Island, in which Global Vision International (GVI) has set up its Tovuto Base; a home for all scholars and volunteers who are there to witness a lifetime experience through the three different yet related programs which GVI has been undertaking at the Tikina of Nacula.

The boat ride was somewhat enjoyable, it was the second time I’ve cruised through to the Yasawa’s, the first time was way back in 1998 on-board a 9 knots speed merchant vessel and for this trip it was with a 24knots (max speed) catamaran known as the Yasawa Flyer (the name talks about the brand). So the difference is obvious, the first one is time consuming whilst the recent trip is by far adventurous and breathtaking.

My destination was the last Port O’ Call so; we disembarked from the Yasawa Flyer via Tonic (GVI boat) meeting Luke, Nathan, Murray and Eddie at 1400hrs heading towards the Tovuto Base. We were a group of six scholars Rodney & Kate were for the Community Construction Program, Jessica for the Education Program, myself, Daniella and Katchia for the Marine Program.

We were introduced to life at the base soon after lunch and it was not that hard for me to adapt to it as it was typically the Fijian way of living.

The actual mission started on the eve of our arrival in which I was given the Open Water Dive text book to read and understand each chapter and latter test myself by attempting the knowledge review questions at the end of each chapter. Took me two days to complete the theory of Open Water Diving and with a delayed insurance coverage, I started marking the knowledge review questions with Simon Dixon (my dive instructor) before attempting both the quiz test and the final exams afterwards.

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After passing the exams I was ready to learn some underwater skills which started the next day after the confirmation of my dive insurance. It was another three days for underwater skills before I was taken for the first deep dive to have a look around under water at no more than 20meters depth.

Advanced Open Water Diving followed afterwards, surprisingly these came with no official exams we were to attempt the review questions only and get it marked by Chloe North our new dive instructor who will be taking the instructors role from Simon next year. It took us another 3 days to practically complete the course and afterwards it was diving all throughout.

Some interesting skills learned in Advanced Open Water were: Peak Buoyancy, being a Naturalist underwater and Navigation which to me was one of the important skills to master.

I had a total of 28 dives whilst undertaking the program and I had some wonderful memories of it. With each dive, I did learn something new and perfect weather allowed us to travel further away from base.

I did not know that I’ll be spending what I would recall one of those memorable times of my life, and that was to go to the Cathedral, the shark feeding site of Nacula. I could still remember Simon’s word of caution before the dive… “we are going to encounter some big creatures underneath; so no chasing sharks”…I retaliated back by asking, “who would do that?”

At about 25m underneath we could see Sharks, about 5-6 feet in length and quite a few of them. White Tip’s, Black Tip’s, Grey Reefs, 3 Sharp-tooth Lemon’s and 2 Bull Sharks all patrolling the bottom floor, our team of 7 divers dropped down to where these magnificent sea creatures were feeding, to swim with them and watch them swim amongst and around each other with humans watching off from a near distance.

The hot yet terrifying moments was when the two Bulls came straight ahead of Simon, I was behind Simon watching interestingly of the encounter, they were like half a meter of Simon before they split off in different directions….I shouted with a relieving smile in my regulator. The team swam around the “Cathedral” before surfacing to one of the most nerve wrecking incidents I have encountered.

The last dive however was probably the way the Yasawa waters were to say goodbye to me after completing both the basic diving certificates in them. Our team of 5 divers went to the “Zoo” a famous dive spot off base. The team again dropped down to 20meters, and at that distance we could see a massive Hump-head Wrasse swimming close by to us. The team were still focusing on the Wrasse when we could sense a cloud of darkness hovering and when we looked up a big school of Barracuda were swimming on top of us with approximately 30 – 50 Barracudas measuring at 1.5meters in length. There were also Cods and Groupers and a few Sweet Lips but again the icing was being able to swim close to two White Tip Sharks and a Black Tip as we were about to ascend back to the surface.

The trip to the Global Vision International base in Yasawa didn’t only provide me with qualifications of an underwater diver. I learned a lot of things; one of which is teamwork whether it be on the boat in the kitchen doing the grounds or cleaning the dorms. I was also taught the basic steps of managing my dive gears to running the compressors.

I was also given fish lectures thanks to Luke and Simon and I was able to control my diet, it was probably the most times that I have been eating vegetarian meals for the first time in my life. Given another opportunity to continue with Rescue Diving or Dive Master, I would welcome the idea, pending on my availability. I finally came to the realization of what diving is all about; and that is; Go to Places, Meet New People and Have Fun.

Parrotfish help research traditional knowledge

I joined up with the research team on a Friday in Namalata village in the district of Kubulau. I have always had a keen interest in traditional knowledge, which is in danger of draining away, so this trip was my chance to help investigate whether and how it is being passed on to the next generation.

Team “Bubute” (named after the parrotfish that our interviewees were asked to identify) included Rachel (collecting data for her PhD thesis), Lai and Seini (graduate researchers from USP) and me trying to use my local connections and experience to explore traditional knowledge in these parts.

As Lai was wrapping the waka (kava root used to make the drink for traditional ceremonies), I worried that it would be turned against us – used for an early morning drinking session. This proved right next morning when we presented the sevusevu on the island of Navatu. As soon as Buli Navatu (the local chief) accepted our offering, he ordered for it to be pounded and served to us in the village hall – at 9.00 am on Saturday morning!

When we escaped the drinking, my first interviewee was a man who hailed from Ono-i-Lau in the Lau group of islands. He had married a woman from Navatu and lived there for most of his life. We talked about the different plants and their uses for medicine, food, to sell and for special occasions. I noticed he used most plants at home, rather than selling or donating them to village functions. My traditional links meant I was duty bound to joke that as he is not contributing to the village, maybe they should send him back to Lau without his wife!

The elders relate closely with seasonal weather patterns and know which crops to plant where and when. They will plant a certain species of uvi (yam) in certain weather at a certain time of year to ensure it is perfect to harvest for a feast at Christmas, New Year or a big i-sevu (presentation of root crops to the vanua or church). I now know that planting in July and harvesting the following March will give me the biggest yams (I made a note to take back to my village).

The next stage is to analyse the data and assess the links between traditional knowledge and natural resource management. Hopefully the results will help enhance the effective transfer and application traditional knowledge to meet current needs as well as providing for future generations.

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Village adventures in Vuya

Accompanied by the BYMST (Bua Yaubula Management Support Team) Coordinator and the Assistant Roko Tui, we received a warm welcome and a big bowl of kava as we arrived for the first time in Vuya Village. This was the start of a week of village workshops across the district of Vuya, at the southern tip of the province of Bua. It was also an early step in a process to help develop an ecosystem-based management plan for the district, supporting communities to work together for sustainable management of their natural resources.

We had been well briefed by Brooke, a locally-based Peace Corps volunteer, so knew the village had already developed a management plan and delivered some impressive projects (including its recently-established mangrove nursery!). Attended by 38 local men and women, the workshop identified ways they can build on their plan and achieve even more.

Our plans to visit Navave were scuppered by unforeseen circumstances, so next stop was Nabouwalu Village, overlooking the jetty that takes people and goods (including truckloads of taro) to and from Viti Levu. Presentations, discussions and conceptual modeling explored the threats to local ecosystems and strategies through which these might be addressed. More kava followed as we talked and got to know each other into the night.

Finally we arrived in Wairiki Village, the chiefly home of our companion Akuila Qio Turaganiqali, the BYMST Coordinator. Workshop participants showed great enthusiasm to learn more in order to safeguard their resources for future generations. The local development agenda includes major road building, mining, commercial forestry and development of Nabouwalu into a town – so there are plenty of challenges and opportunities.

The icing on the cake was lunch at Wairiki, where villagers prepared a feast of the highly poisonous moray eel to test me. Knowing the traditional ties from my mother’s side (Kavula village) to the natives of Wairiki, I was torn over whether to tuck into this dish with its potentially lethal effects. I trusted my instincts and took the advice of my trusted colleague Didi, who said that ‘if the flesh is as white as milk; there is no reason to refuse.’ It was a great relief to finish the bowl and I must say that it was a memorable and tasty meal!

We are already looking forward to returning, working with our new friends and enjoying many more bowls of kava.

[Editor’s note: While KK survived his moray meal unscathed, a man from Nakodu village was not so lucky recently where the WCS Marine Team were working to assess the impacts of harvests from tabu areas.]

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Fiji’s Bigger Better Network

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The Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area (FLMMA) network Annual General Meeting 2012 was held in Navakaka village in Cakaudrove in December. FLMMA is a network of communities, government and NGOs involved in marine conservation. Its partners come together in order to learn and act collectively and improve the success of their efforts.  The opening speech by Manager of Provincial Services of the iTaukei Affairs Board, Mr. Timoci Namotu, outlined the workshop objectives (to capture lessons learned and best practice) and the commitment of iTaukei Affairs to supporting sustainable management of natural resources.  

Information and best practice were shared across a wide range of areas including management of Tabu Areas and No Take Zones, reef enrichment and herbivorous fish; land-based activities; and alternative/sustainable income generation.  There was also a review of FLMMA governance and management, with a focus on the role/status of Yaubula Management Support Teams (usually provincial, YMSTs bring partners together to plan natural resource management) in expanding and maintaining the network.

I facilitated discussion on the negative impacts that Land Based Activities have on the marine environment. Participants shared their experience of good practice in this area, including: reforestation of native trees; substituting chemical weed-killers to the collective effort of solesolevaki; and strengthening village by-laws in relation to unnecessary burning. These initiatives have restored and maintained healthy freshwater and marine ecosystems whilst meeting the needs of the communities who rely on them. Subsequent discussion (particularly the grog session!) highlighted growing awareness of these causal chains and frustration that practical measures are not emerging to address them.  There’s definately a need for more collaborative planning across wider areas as part of an Ecosystem-Based Management (or ‘Ridge to Reef’) approach.

Its easy to see why the FLMMA network is internationally acclaimed and so passionately championed by its members. The AGM was a great chance to share knowledge, reflect and refocus. Everyone who took part learned something new and the prominent role of community reps further built their capacity as local leader. The next step is to address the challenges identified as we pursue our goals in 2013 – onwards and upwards!

The FLMMA AGM was co-funded by the ADB Coral Triangle Initiative program and the Packard Foundation Grant through the Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA) network.

Plunging into Fiji’s rivers

Stretching between Mt Navotuvotu in the west, past Mt Kasi and towards Mt Sorolevu are large tracts of native forest. Beneath these canopies run crystal clear rivers and streams with abundant fish and invertebrate life. I led a small team to explore previously un-surveyed rivers and record the biodiversity found there. The team of 2 Fisheries Officers, aquatic ecology consultant Aaron Jenkins and I (WCS Fiji’s Freshwater Specialist) left Viti Levu by boat before the sun came up on 30th July, bound for the port of Nabouwalu at the southern tip of Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu.

The team arrived in Nabouwalu and headed straight to Nakawaga village, part of the province of Cakaudrove. After presenting our i sevusevu to the village elders we were given the thumbs-up to undertake our biological assessments of the river fauna beside their village. The villagers assured us that we would find lot of life there, since the river had been protected for the last 10 years. After 4 hours surveying the river we had to conclude that this was not a healthy site: the impacts of upstream activities were really being felt, even in this protected stretch of river. Over a bowl or 2 of kava that evening, we reassured the village that it is still an excellent idea to have protected area in place, but if the communities cannot control upstream activities, then it would be wise to shift the protected area to somewhere they can restrict the surrounding activities.

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The second site surveyed was the upper catchment of the Wainunu River where we stayed in the upstream village of Navakasali; we were the first visitors that they had had this year! Happily, the sites surveyed were of high water quality with diverse and abundant fish life. There was also high abundance of freshwater prawns; these related well to the traditional methods of catching prawns – the method involves lining up rocks in a V shape along the shallow edge of the stream and placing rotten coconut in the inner part of the V. At night they come and collect prawns by the hundreds from the V.

Our second day from Navakasali was much more disappointing. We surveyed Wailoaloa river near a forestry station. We pulled seine nets and hand nets through the murky water and caught nothing. It was completely lifeless; no fish, no prawns, no mollusks, not even any insects or insect larvae. The local village guides said that inhabitants of the forestry station would often use chemical fishing techniques (i.e. herbicides) to fish here and that is why it was so devoid of life. This was a stark contrast to the previous site we had visited. Further upstream the story was the same – years before herbicides had been used to clear the area before planting mahogany, and chemical fishing had been used frequently in this stretch of river.

We left Navakasali for Daria village – the Wainunu river which passes Daria originates right from the peaks of Mt. Navotuvotu. The site was a protected area (tabu) that stretched for 200m. Despite riverside gardening of dalo (taro), the water in the upper Wainunu was of high quality, with moderate fish diversity. We recorded high abundance of the endemic fish Redigobious leveri, with very large size fishes.

The last village visited was Driti village, in the upper reaches of the Dama River. The forest in these upper catchments was intact and healthy explained the high abundance native fish present. This site was a haven for gobies with four species including the relatively rare endemic Stiphodon isabellae, and abundant prawns.

To conclude, these surveys found the state of upper catchments to be very variable between sites. Often gardening, livestock and forestry have already impacted on the fauna within these upper catchments. The Dawacumu and upper Dama rivers possess the most unique biodiversity and intact fish populations, and the forests are in the best condition of the sites sampled. There is a clear need to do some awareness-raising on the impact of chemical fishing and herbicide use for clearing undergrowth prior to planting of timber trees. Both of these practices are having a severe impact on waterways in Fiji and even in some very isolated and remote upper watershed areas. These results will be presented back to communities in the coming months, as part of a project to identify riparian buffer zones and areas of native forest for protection.

This project is kindly supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), a joint program of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the World Bank.