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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Spend more than a few minutes on Kia Island and it is obvious that the residents enjoy their fishing. But fishing isn’t just for pleasure, it is a way of life for the communities of Yaro, Ligau and Daku who live on a speck of land no more than 3 square kilometres perched on the edge of Fiji’s Great Sea Reef.
While the spectacular scenery of the tall rocky cliffs of the island and the warm hospitality of the people of Kia remained the same, much had changed since my last visit in 2009. There was power every night. Sky Pacific satellite dishes crowned the roofs of houses. I no longer needed to walk surreptitiously across the schoolyard to go bathe at the single well with a resident freshwater eel now that large water tanks flanked most of the village houses.
The improvements in lifestyle are probably related to increased fishing income. When I first came to Kia Island in 2008, we saw more fish on the reef than I had ever seen in my life. The values of fish biomass we recorded were nearly off the charts – some of the highest figures that have been published for anywhere in the world. I doubt they are anywhere near the same today.
A few days after we began our surveys, the Kia communities announced that they were opening up their tabu area to fishing. Within four weeks, they had removed nearly 70-80% of the fish biomass, primarily targeting large trevally, unicornfish, grouper, snapper, parrotfish and emperor. Those fish that didn’t get caught, “bailed out” of the tabu area and fled to other adjacent areas of reef, as we noted from a spike in fish numbers and biomass at adjacent survey sites open to fishing.
In 2009, I had the WCS marine team return to Kia Island to look for evidence of recovery as the tabu had supposedly been put back in place. Our results, however, showed a reduction of fish numbers and sizes, suggesting that people were still fishing.
Why? Well, the locals told us that they saw boats from Labasa continuing to fish inside their tabu area – clearly people were not respecting the tabu. We also know that middlemen from seafood export companies moved onto the island, thus there was easy access to a reliable market and hard cash. Hard cash can be used to purchase more fishing gear and boats, thus leading to more fishing pressure.
While the main purpose of our visit this year was to collect some additional social survey information to inform an analysis of the overall effectiveness of management, I also wanted to make sure to present the outcomes of the tabu harvest to the communities.
In Yaro Village in particular, there was a lot of discussion. People were genuinely concerned that the level of fishing might not be sustainable, but they feel a bit powerless to make rules to control effort. The Tui Macuata has the ultimate authority regarding when the tabu area can be opened, thus, to use a banking analogy, there is reluctance to reinstate the tabu for fear that the accrued benefits will be withdrawn by people from outside the community.
The Kia communities are caught in a governance dilemma. What are some of the possible solutions? We counselled them that they could form a fishing committee to be able to take a stronger, unified voice to Bose Vanua meetings to discuss the issues with the traditional community leaders. Because there is such a small area of land available on Kia for planting crops, the communities are nearly completely dependent on fishing for their livelihoods, and outside fishing pressure represent a real threat to their very existence.
Secondly, they can continue the excellent monitoring that they are already doing to assess whether the fish that they are catching are reproductively mature. If too many fish are taken out of the water before they are able to replenish the stock, populations will eventually fall below levels needed to support food and income needs.
Unfortunately, Kians have been hit by a double whammy. In addition to increased fishing pressure, Tropical Cyclone Evan wreaked havoc on their reef. The brilliant colours of the fringing reef bordering the island are gone – likely victim to the cyclone’s thrashing in December 2012, as evidenced by many tipped over coral plates. Instead, it is pipefish paradise as they hide in the turf algae waiting to feed on small unsuspecting invertebrates like copepods. Without a high number of “sasamaki fish” – the fish that eat the algae and clean up the reef – the corals will be unlikely to come back and the reef structure will degrade, thus reducing habitat for other fish and their prey.
Now is the time to act. We hope to bring back soon the outcomes of our work on periodic harvests of tabu areas to provide better guidelines of how much can be harvested from tabu areas and how often. We are also keen to partner with other NGOs, like WWF, to help the communities come up with a plan to control fishing effort and move towards sustainable extraction levels.
When I received an invitation from the government to speak at a symposium on sustainable agricultural development for Wallis and Futuna, I jumped at the opportunity. “When will I ever get to go to Wallis and Futuna again?” I reasoned.
Some of you may wonder where is Wallis and Futuna? Wallis and Futuna is comprised of three islands, Uvea (Wallis) and Futuna and Alofi (Futuna), which are part of the French Overseas Territories in the Pacific. Wallis and Futuna shares Exclusive Economic Zone boundaries with Fiji (to the south), Tuvalu (to the north), and Samoa and Tonga (to the east). Futuna is closer to Fiji though has closer linguistic connections to Samoa and has two kings. Wallis is nearer to Samoa but has language similarities closer to Tonga and has just one (elected) king, who was curiously recently dismissed.
An hour and twenty minutes after boarding the plane in Nadi, I disembarked at the airstrip in Wallis with the other workshop participants to be greeted by beautiful young Polynesian women who presented us with garlands of perfumed local flowers of all varieties. I later found out that this is the way of life on Wallis and Futuna. Every morning the ladies will choose selective flowers, leaves and seeds to send their men off to work in island colours and scents. And so it was that every morning at the workshop, our participants who hailed from New Caledonia, France, Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga were bestowed with these customary gifts.
I knew relatively little about Wallis and Futuna before arriving, except that I would need to drag out my rusty French from the dark recesses of my brain. I remembered to grab my French-English dictionary before I left, which proved to be somewhat useful, but not all that necessary since the Territorial Government organizing the workshop arranged for interpreters from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community to provide translation services. So, when I wanted to refresh my vocabulary, I would listen to talks in French, but when the French speakers got overly carried away in flourish and speed, as they are wont to do, I could simply press a button and with my UN-style headphones be fully briefed on the presentations in English.
Wallis and Futuna is a study of contrasts. There is no public transportation here on Uvea, which is 15 km long and 8 km wide, so people need their own vehicles and 4 x 4 Fords, Totoyas and Mazdas seem to be ever present. But with 47% of the people completely reliant on family farms and fishing, and with no domestic or export market for produce, I am baffled by how anyone can afford to purchase the cars. One source may be from remittances send back by young Wallatians and Futunians seeking study and employment overseas.
Indeed, that was a running theme of the workshop in terms of whether the recent surge in youth emigration is a problem or an opportunity. The customary leaders continued to express concern that their youth were losing their traditional knowledge of planting, getting fat from eating too much butter and jam, and are only interested in Facebook and the wonders of the internet. By contrast, some academics presented an alternative view that migration and education presented opportunities to bring innovation and skills back to the islands, as long as the youth are instilled with their local values from an early age so that they will want to return and build a sustainable future in their island homes.
Local values and traditional knowledge was another cross-cutting theme of the workshop. I think many of us were confused and somewhat appalled when the leader of the Territorial Assembly opened the workshop saying that “culture is a hindrance” to growth. By contrast, almost all of the subsequent presentations emphasized the need to build on the foundations of culture and traditional knowledge in order to ensure future sustainability and community resilience. For example, Pacific Islanders had past practices of planting and preserving “famine foods”, like fermented breadfruit, to ensure food security in times of local natural disasters.
The Territorial Government has aspirations to develop an Agriculture Development Plan that addresses both growth of economic opportunities and sustainability through 2030. But before putting their goals and objectives on paper, they wanted to learn from the experiences from their Pacific Island neighbors. They thus invited a diverse range of researchers and practitioners from the agriculture, fisheries, environment, culture and health sectors to think about island management in a truly integrated way. My contribution to the workshop came in the final presentation where I delivered a summary from a recent guide that we developed on Pacific Integrated Island Management, which highlights principles for good practice in managing across sectors and ecosystems in tropical island settings, and showcases examples from across the Pacific.
I have to congratulate the people of Wallis and Futuna for embracing the idea of holistic management. With such strong intact culture and rich natural resources, based on the foundations of an enormous wealth of agrobiodiversity, there is hope that the communities here can thrive into the future. What that means for Wallis and Futuna may be different from more developed countries. They will likely never rank highly on scales for Human Development Index or Gross Domestic Product, indicators that are traditionally used to describe growth and productivity. However, do these indicators actual relate to happy, healthy lifestyles? I think that if we measured across scales related to human well-being and cultural richness, we might find that Wallis and Futuna are leading the way.
Friends say that I am obsessed with the current outbreak of Ebola in west Africa. They are not wrong – but Ebola and I have a long history. Ebola, indirectly, is what brought me to Fiji.
As I was finishing up writing my PhD dissertation in California in 2006, I saw an announcement of a talk to be given by Dr. Peter Walsh discussing the catastrophic decline of great ape populations in the Congo Basin rainforests due to transmission of Ebola. The talk was tragic but yet transfixing. Peter spoke about the legacy of the French colonial policy to move all villages to the main roads in Gabon, which created vast forest tracks that opened up pathways for formerly isolated ape populations to contact each other right as Ebola broke out of its jungle reservoirs in the mid-1990s. Ebola has killed about one third of the world’s gorilla population.
I knew all too well about Ebola’s history in humans in Gabon. In early 1997, I received my assignment to go to Gabon as a rural fisheries extension agent with the U.S. Peace Corps. I had never previously heard of the country, but in my research and in talking to public health experts with the World Heath Organization, I learned that a highly fatal disease called Ebola had entered human populations to devastating effects in Gabon in 1994, 1996 and 1997.
I immediately went out and bought Richard Preston’s gripping read, The Hot Zone, to learn more and found out that a very similar strain of Ebola to Ebola Zaire that is presently plaguing Sierra Leone, Libera and Guinea actually found its ways to the outskirts of Washington DC in 1989 in infected monkeys. Between the two days it took me to read the account, I had terrible nightmares of visiting my father (a surgeon) at the hospital while patients crashed out all around us.
While working in Gabon, thoughts of Ebola were never too far away. Thus, when I saw the announcement about Peter’s talk, I was keen to learn more. I was intrigued to find out that Peter had worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society while conducting his research in Congo Basin. After the talk, I approached Peter and said that I was interested in working for an environmental NGO and would he be able to tell me a bit more about the different options. Peter was kind enough to call me when he got back to his home base at the time at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and gave me an overview of the different NGO players.
From that moment, hearing about WCS’s boot-on-the ground approach, focus on science and commitment to working with local communities, I was sold. I originally applied to run the WCS Papua New Guinea marine program in 2006, though ended up taking a research position in Australia when many months had gone by without a response. I tried again when I saw a position advertised for Fiji and was hired as an Associate Conservation Scientist with the program in 2008.
To this day, I am still grateful to Peter for taking the time to provide guidance to an eager graduate student, and grateful to WCS for taking a chance to hire me to come to Fiji. It has been an amazing six and a half years in Fiji to date, and I look for to the many interesting adventures and challenges to come.
As for Ebola, I am heartened by the latest WHO announcement of declines in new human cases in Liberia, though fearful for the still rapid spread across Sierra Leone and Guinea. I am also concerned about response to media reports that fruit bats harbor the virus. While this is true, slaughtering bats is not going to stop future outbreaks of the disease. We need to look at both preserving their habitat and limiting human-bat encounters through hunting.
WCS is currently leading efforts to be able to track Ebola in the wild. WCS researchers are catching and sampling fruit bat populations to track the presence of Ebola virus over a period of time, but handling infected fruit bats can be dangerous, so they looked to develop a less risky but equally accurate method. Analysis of feces from great apes tested for antibodies for Ebola is allowing WCS and colleagues to determine the presence of the disease within local populations over large geographic areas. By learning more about the disease, the better we can prepare for it.
I have spent a lot of time this year thinking about the fate of Pacific Island biodiversity.Thoughts of falling trees and fish gasping for breath actually keep me up at night – not because I’m a tree-hugging greenie, but because I am grappling to find solutions for how Pacific Islanders can use their natural resources sustainably.
In putting together a special issue of Pacific Conservation Biology on “Conservation of Biodiversity in the Pacific Islands of Oceania”, I had quite a bit of time to reflect on the main drivers of biodiversity loss in our region.
Our islands are plagued with invasive species. In fact, on many islands the number of introduced plants now equals or exceeds native species. Predatory animal invaders have decimated bird populations. Even more insidious, species introductions are often coupled with new pathogens and disease that can have massive impact on agricultural production. For example, fungal leaf blight has wreaked havoc on native varieties of taro in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Samoa.
At the same time, Pacific forests and fisheries are disappearing out from under our noses, both to provision and feed Pacific people and the world. Natural resources are being extracted at unprecedented rates due to increased consumer demand, improvements in technology, high levels of poverty and few alternatives, and poor or corrupt governance systems. We are in the middle of a development boom. And while there exist many multilateral treaties and regional strategies to control pollution, reduce habitat loss and degradation and mitigate climate change and disaster risk, the enthusiasm by which these instruments have been adopted has yet to be matched with equal attention to implementation, monitoring and enforcement.
So what can we do? Throw our hands up and moan? Being a grumpy grouch usually doesn’t get you that far.
We need to get people involved – bring conservation to the public – show people why they should care. As my co-author Richard Kingsford and I wrote in our editorial:
“Conservation cannot be successful as a perceived pursuit of an ideological few intent on saving every part of this planet. The majority will needs to prevail for effective conservation action.”
Engaging people at the local scale is already occurring across the western Pacific through locally-managed marine areas (LMMAs), which build on Pacific cultural traditions of stewardship over the land and sea. There are hundreds of communities actively involved in the LMMA network, and thousands more who are implementing management on their own.
But how can we start thinking about scaling up local action to achieve broader outcomes across a scale that is meaningful for biodiversity? Well, we’ve had a think about that too. Recognizing a lack of replicability, sustainability and cost-effectiveness in many expensive pilot projects that have been trialled over the decades in the Pacific, we’ve developed a set of principles for integrated island management.
Integrated island management calls for coordinated networks of institutions and local communities that span across species’ habitats from land to sea and connect various stakeholders to develop common goals. Through participatory visioning and management, groups who might outwardly seem to have opposing objectives (e.g. commercial fishermen and recreational divers) may see that they have common interests, for example, in maintaining source populations of fish stocks to support livelihoods and biodiversity conservation.
Maintaining fish stocks may require regulation of land-based activities. For example, new work from Solomon Islands suggests that sedimentation from logging activity has severely affected the nursery habitat of bumphead parrotfish, a large commercial fishery. Better regulation of logging activity and restoration of waterways may have the double benefits of improving downstream fisheries and maintaining clean water for drinking and health.
Solutions for Pacific biodiversity conservation will require people to step out of their comfort zones and think outside of the box. We will need to embrace new relationships with industry. Given the importance placed by Pacific Island governments on economic development, economic incentives and market-based solutions, where appropriate, can encourage and support sustainable use of natural resources and reduce waste. Managers, decision-makers and local communities need to be better informed about the options for actions and consequences of their choices, and better recognize the close relationship between the environment, social systems and the economy in the Pacific.