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Stacy (aka Spacey or Jup) attempts to keep the whole show running as WCS Fiji Program Director. When not running around promoting WCS Fiji work, she is often underwater or drowning in bilos of grog

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

Koro Expedition 2014

It was the fourth pass in a tiny plane over the remote island of Koro that I lost my sense of awe at the lush green volcanic slopes crashing into turquoise coloured reefs.. and began to worry for my life. As we wondered how much fuel the plane had left, the pilots peered through the window for a glimpse of the fog-shrouded runway that had completely vanished in the rain. As I tried not to grip the seat in front of me, the ancient propeller plane circled one last time, lurched to the ground, and bumped and skidded uphill onto the wet-slicked landing strip to stop at a tiny building. We had arrived on Koro island in style.

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Koro, like many islands in the dotted archipelago of Fiji, practice a traditional form of fishery management to periodically harvest fish from the sea. To build up enough fish for a feast, a community decides not fish a small area (called the tabu and pronounced tambu) for a period of time and wait to harvest it in an intense effort over several days or weeks. WCS Fiji has been working with many of these communities over the last few years to document the ecological impacts of traditional harvests and help communities make decisions on when, where and for how long to close off tabu areas in order to rebuild fish stocks. In the next week, the village of Nakodu would be fishing their tabu for the first time in over a year. Researchers from WCS, the University of Western Australia and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, had taken ferries, trucks and moderately unreliable planes from all over the world to arrive at Nakodu village on Koro Island and document this year’s harvest.

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The village of Nakodu is nestled in the slope of an ancient volcano now covered with steep, lush foliage intermixed with local crops of cassava, papaya, sugar cane and coconuts. There are about 60+ households in the village, a host of friendly Nakodu villagers to greet you and many a welcoming ibe dina (pandanus mat) to sit and drink kava into the late hours of the night. Made from crushing the roots of a kava plant (Piper methysticum) into a white powder that is stirred through water and chugged from a coconut bowl, drinking kava is a nightly social activity (and commonly called ‘grog’ for the notoriously groggy and numbing hangover you face each morning).

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On our first evening, freshly clad in our traditional sulus or sarongs, the village chief was presented with a bundle of fresh kava root and a sperm whale’s tooth – a sacred gift in Fijian culture to show how seriously we took our request – and we asked permission for the village to open the tabu closure and document the community’s catch of fish. By lantern light during the sevusevu, the village chief consulted the elders, chanted in Fijian, and granted us permission.

It’s been a year since Stacy and her team last visited Nakodu, but everyone remembered them and their record haul of over 3000 coral reef fish from the tabu last year. Since then, the fish inside the tabu had been growing in size and number and WCS had returned to see the impacts of a second harvest on Nakodu’s fish communities. Tabu are important traditional fisheries management tools, but increasing pressure to open the tabus for harvesting had left them potentially vulnerable to overexploitation. With sustainable management, locally managed areas like tabus can maintain fish populations over the long-term, harvest fish to pay for community services, support fishing livelihoods and empower communities with the ability to manage their own resources sustainably. But many questions remain unanswered, such as, how often or how intensive can a community harvest a tabu and how long to let the areas recover in between harvests so that fish populations grow in size and number. By returning to Koro island one year after the last fish harvest, Stacy and her team can begin to reveal the answers to these questions.

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The team spent the first few days of counting corals and fish inside and outside the tabu to assess the status of corals and fish before the harvest. Dive tanks, masks, snorkels, cameras, transects lines and assorted gear were hauled in and out of the water each day. One of the biggest challenges was a broken dive compressor that had been damaged in the two days of travel from Suva — without it, we had no way to fill the 24 SCUBA tanks they had brought all the way from Suva. Luckily, the logistical creativity of Waisea, Margy and Yash sorted out the compressor and another boat (the other WCS boat was in for repair on another island).

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As usual, I was travelling on my stomach and can happily provide an account of our daily feasts, including taro leave patties, roti dipped in freshly squeezed coconut milk, eggplant-wrapped fish fried in coconut, freshwater prawns harvested from the stream, octopus and fish: fish soup, boiled fish, fried fish. We even gnawed on raw fish straight out of the ocean briefly marinated in lime juice and hot chili (thanks to Jordan’s spearfishing and Didi’s Master Chef skills on the boat at lunchtime).

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While we were surveying Nakodu’s coral reefs, the women of the village were fixing holes in the net and the men were gathering long water vines (or wa-lai) for the harvest. On our fifth day in the village, it was harvest time. Amidst pouring rain, the village and the WCS team swam out to the reef crest and the harvest began! More than 80 people from the village wearing tennis shoes, flip flops, gum boots or in bare feet hung onto the vines and started to pull them in closer and closer together. I must admit that at first it was hard to see how hanging on for dear life to a kilometre-long tree branch in the middle of a coral reef could catch hundreds and hundreds of fish. But as the vine was pulled in tighter and the boats coordinated the fish drive like cowboys on horses with the rich call of the triton shell, we stood shallower and shallower on the reef until we were all side-to-side. In front of us was a large, seething and hectic fish ball of snappers, parrotfish, surgeonfish, wrasses and other reef fish trapped in the middle!Everyone suddenly rushed towards a gill net, forcing the fish into a surging mass of mesh, feet, heads, tails, people, knives flashing, nets straining and much cheering. It was pure chaos! The net was barely able to be hauled up onto the skiff (apparently they nearly sank a boat in last year’s harvest!) and everyone erupted into a cheers, hoots and hollers at the giant haul of fish in the harvest.

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As dusk turned to dark turned to pitch black, the net was landed on shore and the harvest assessed. Under the light of headlamps and torches, Stacy and her team identified and measured pile after pile of fish, counting 1001 fish in all sizes, colours, shapes and species. Covered in fish scales, we finally stood back and watched the ladies organize and dole out small piles of fish for every family in Nakodu and the neighbouring village of Mudu. Celebrations were in order (after a dinner of fish!) and we spent the night gathered around the never-ending kava bowl, listened to traditional Fijian guitar music by lamplight as the generator died and shared bowls of grog and dances with our fellow fishers and neighbours in Nakodu.

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After a successful harvest, we all head our different ways. Most of the team will stay on for a few days to resurvey the sites and assess at the impact of the intense harvest before heading back to Suva. The UWA researchers will have many hours of processing fish survey videos ahead of them and the California team will start mathematically modelling the impact of the harvest. As for me, I head home to Canada to think about protecting coral reefs from climate change and the incredible and inspiring cultural practices that these coastal ecosystems support.

Vanaka vaka levu Fiji, and thanks for all the fish.

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Koro team 2014: Stacy Jupiter, Waisea Naisilisili, Yashika Nand, Margaret Fox, Sirilo Dulunaqio (Didi), Kino Koto, Luke Gordon, Jordan Goetze, Todd Bond, Crow White, Paul Carvalho, Emily Darling, with many, many thanks to the friendliest village of Nakodu, Koro island

This was a guest blog written and photographed by Dr. Emily Darling, a David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow at the University of North Carolina and an affiliate research with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Follow her on Twitter (@emilysdarling) or her website (www.emilysdarling.com

Are tabu areas really taboo?

Special to WCS by science writer, Amy West

Conducting underwater fish and coral surveys with Inoke on board. Photo by Amy West

Conducting underwater fish and coral surveys with Inoke on board. Photo by Amy West

Kusima. That’s the Fijian word for an overwhelming desire to eat fish. The last high chief of the district that contains Fiji’s first capital, Levuka, had copious kusima. The fish he ate could only come from his own designated fishing spot called Vadalevu. And before he passed away he asked the district officer, Inoke, to create a marine protected area.

This week we are here to harvest that protected area.

 

 

This protected area, or tabu in Fijian, is located in front of a picturesque village and mountainous backdrop named Nauouo (pronounced Now-wo-wo) just north of Levuka. It’s had no international visitors other than Peace Corps volunteers, who built the big meeting hall thirty-five years ago where we presented sevusevu to Inoke and shared many bowls of kava. On the floor of this building he told that story of what prompted him to set up this tabu. He warmly welcomed our convoy of nearly a dozen people carrying a month’s ration of food, water and gear saying, “We will not get in your way. Do whatever you need.”

We made the daylong journey ferrying over to Ovalau and traveled along dirt roads to conduct WCS’s fourth experimental harvest. WCS asked that the tabu Inoke set up in 2009 be fished after four years of being off-limits to fisherman. Our mission: record the abundance and size of fish that live here before they begin spearfishing and hand lining. After the harvest we survey the sites again to measure the fishing impact. The group will return a year later to survey again and investigate whether fishing surpassed a sustainable level, or if the tabu handled the pressure. Gathering this data gives the village an idea of how much fishing is too much, and if they are properly managing their tabu.

Visiting the outer reef near the tabu.P hoto by Amy West

Visiting the outer reef near the tabu.P hoto by Amy West

Two teams took off diving the next day- one boat with Odei, a local fisherman, and the other with Inoke to sample within the boundary and outside it. After visiting two fishing sites that toed the tabu boundary, we encountered some confusion on its exact location. Though we thought we were inside the protected area, the fisherman, often referencing off an arbitrary point on land, said he fished in this spot. When comparing our original GPS coordinates later with the boundaries that the chief indicated while on the water with us, we noticed the marine protected area had noticeably shrunk. Since the tabus are not typically created using GPS, this problem is common.

 

But the incident took me back to the question the chief first asked us that night, “Is our tabu big enough?”

That’s not easy nor a fast one to answer, but it’s the principle question so many villages want to know. Each tabu has a different fishing history, habitats, and pressures. It’s impossible to gather data on all of these tabus, but those that WCS assess help build a management plan to predict what can work for these locally managed areas.

Thus far our surveys closest to Nauouo’s shore (where most fishing occurs) were largely fishless- particularly the large ones. In fact, the WCS Fiji program director, Stacy Jupiter, remarked that goatfish appeared smaller than the normally tiny damselfish.

The village of Nauouou. Photo by Amy West

The village of Nauouou. Photo by Amy West

When we traveled a few kilometers along the shore outside of the tabu, however, fish were still small but numerous.  Had the tabu been fished previously to the extent that it didn’t recover? Were the boundaries too nebulous or were poachers at fault? Either way fish life in the reserve did not seem to be thriving.

Tabu regions are not new per se. Historically some villages would cease fishing to honor particular deceased relatives or wait to harvest an area for a function. Motives didn’t necessarily include long-term conservation or guaranteed food fish for the future. Establishing more formal tabu began fifteen years ago- with 415 created to date. However, a longstanding off-limits “reserve” is atypical for this culture. With market access reaching even the remote regions, WCS wants to see these protected regions, succeed. In a supportive village like Nauouo, so do the residents.

Diving with underwater video to capture the fish abundance. Photo by Amy West

Diving with underwater video to capture the fish abundance. Photo by Amy West

Threats to the success include poachers, lack of enforcement, and unawareness of fish biology and benefits of a truly no-take zone. Therefore, another WCS team is on the ground here, traveling from village to village to ask each household critical questions such as why open a tabu, what size indicates a mature fish, and what perceived benefits come from a tabu?

The harvest should bring in enough fish for a big provincial meeting occurring right after the fishing ends. But an ensuing question remains: will there be enough for the next function?

Amy West has traveled worldwide as a marine scientist, specializing in fisheries and deep-sea ecology. Now as a science communicator she brings stories about ocean realms to the public through radio, video, photography, and writing. She’s usually diving into adventurous stories that take her on or below the water.

Dropping in for a fish census

Special to WCS by science writer, Amy West

Ready to deploy the BRUV off the support boat

Ready to deploy the BRUV off the support boat

A curious visit by a human or motored robotic vehicle likely sends deep-water fish fleeing. It’s difficult to accurately tally fish if we appear as an ungainly and potential predator. In addition, the robot’s electrical field and narrow camera view may not reflect the actual fish composition. So dropping video festooned with bait that sits patiently on the bottom can harmlessly capture which fish are out and about.

 

An Australian duo from Western Australia University aboard the Waitt Institute research vessel has dropped nearly 60 of these camera systems, fondly called  “BRUVs” (baited remote underwater video). Todd Bond and Jordan Goetze have perfected the art of heaving these awkward rebar frames into and out of the water with sheer brute strength, and, well, the help of a cleverly rigged PVC and wooden winch thanks to the Waitt Institute crew. Angling the pair of cameras also allows length measurements of the fish. Needless to say, these boy’s fish ID skills are top notch.

Winching made easier thanks to the Waitt Institute crew

Winching made easier thanks to the Waitt Institute crew

“Hey what is that fish?” I ask trying to describe the coloration.

Coris aygula,” says Jordan without missing one beat.

“And that one on the…,” I ask.

Heniochus  acuminatus,” he says before I can finish my sentence.  Later a fish shoots across the pixelated television screen, totally unrecognizable to all of us. “That’s an jobfish!” hollers out Todd.

 

 

Dropping these frames along Fiji’s reefs or seamounts gives us a peek into the fish assemblages at deeper depths; which are essentially unexplored. Luckily for us the reef system provides natural ledges. Reefs worldwide will typically level out at roughly 30 meters and 60 meters, and some at 90 meters etc… These natural platforms form from erosion thousands of years ago when sea level stabilized, allowing centuries of wave action to eat away at the coral. When sea level rises or falls, a reef is normally dynamic: either building up or dying off.

 

Finding a ledge after 60 meters was challenging-- it just drops off.

Finding a ledge after 60 meters was challenging– it just drops off.

When the team could locate these ledges on the sonar, they were ideal for their camera frames since most of the reef is so sheer. But the systems can go missing or slip off the line. Their recent loss of two cameras to the deep blue was hard to swallow, but par for the course when tossing expensive equipment overboard beyond our reach. Knots may come undone, and gear can be ripped away by currents or snagged on the way up.

 

 

 

Reviewing the footage back on board reveal fish fighting for bait, groupers stopping in for a mouth cleaning at cleaner stations, and a black blotch emperor at ~50 m losing its colors when near the bait. The sea bream at 70 meters changed its colors and striped pattern, too. If they didn’t capture this metamorphosis on video, it could be challenging to identify these fish from a still image without their markings. On this trip the duo have seen more cod and emperor fish at 70 to 80 meters, which have been largely fished from the shallower depths. They’ve also seen fish that extend well beyond their range as noted in fish ID guides.

 

Checking to make sure the cameras stayed on and what fish they captured

Checking to make sure the cameras stayed on and what fish they captured

Recently Jordan and WCS used this video technique to conclude whether the marine protected area had an effect on sharks. These baited cameras inside and outside of Fiji’s largest protected area, Namena Marine Reserve, showed twice as many sharks in the shallow waters of the reserve. Their numbers are thought to be higher inside the safe zone because of the larger number of prey fish available to them.

 

 

Surprisingly it’s the selective practice of spearfishing that’s taken a toll on Fiji’s reefs. It’s too craggy and steep to cast nets on the offshore barrier reefs, but with the expanding market for fish, more poaching, more spearfishing at night, and more boats carrying spearfishers occurs. There’s hope though: fish may be more intelligent than we think. The idea of “deepwater refuges” is a relatively new concept, but an old simple observation made by many divers: more fish are seen below the limits of where they are fished. The BRUVs finally quantified that observation. By dropping cameras both inside and outside an established and newer marine reserve at five meters and 30 meters, scientists found that fish targeted by fishing were missing in the shallower areas, yet seen deeper. The types of fish found deeper were similar within and outside the two marine reserves, indicating depth can be a natural refuge.

 

Though these one-hour videos give just a glimpse into a tiny cross section of the ocean, over time the data can show trends to help manage marine life that are beyond our view.  It keeps the fish counters safe and dry, which the boys aren’t ecstatic about, but they know sacrificing underwater time means collecting more data. All they need to do is grab a cup of coffee and start shouting out fish names.

 

Amy West has traveled worldwide as a marine scientist, specializing in fisheries and deep-sea ecology. Now as a science communicator she brings stories about ocean realms to the public through radio, video, photography, and writing. She’s usually diving into adventurous stories that take her on or below the water.