Lamenting the disappearance of the ‘erky-perkies’

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My childhood memories of growing up in Fiji are filled with images of the islands, and playing on beaches and sand flats for hours upon end from day to night. Back then there was so much to see and explore – so much marine life scurrying about startled by our noisy feet and squeals of glee.

We chased crabs down holes, and dug through sand to find sigawale, a little bivalve clam (and local delicacy) that buries itself a 10-20 centimetres below the surface of the sand at low tide.
But like all children, there were things I feared – illogical things. And one of these were the ‘erky-perkies.’ The sight of them would paralyse me, and I would cling onto my father begging him to carry me. If he refused, I would cry and wail as loudly as I could until he relented and carried me safely in his arms. Black, long, snake-like creatures, sitting on mud or sand flats capable of elongating their body and squeezing into all sorts of shapes. These erky-perkies were so plentiful that in some places you could not walk in a straight line before you walked into one.

I look back at those memories now with a tinge of sadness. Little did I know that those animals I feared were harmless sea cucumbers called ‘snakefish’ (Holothuria coluber), sifting and processing sand and mud, playing a critical and poorly understood role in our marine environment. They churn through sediment aerating it, keep sediments clean of algae and help in the processing of nutrients.

Erky-perkies are supposed to be out there, in high numbers. Moving at a little more than snail pace, these animals cannot escape from one of their largest predators, human-beings. They are in high demand in places like China, as they are eaten almost daily as a health tonic and a local delicacy.

Over the last 10 days of surveys, I realised that I had not seen a snakefish once. And what was worrying was that the more than twenty other species that should have been out there on sand flats, seagrass beds or on coral reefs, were either absent or in very low numbers. Why does this matter?

Well, sea cucumbers have separate sexes and so if there are too few of them out there, the likelihood of getting together and producing more offspring is very low. It could take years or decades for over-exploited populations to return. Things have got so bad in many of the Pacific Island countries that they have imposed five year moratoria to allow the populations to recover. Fiji is one of the countries that has continued to export sea cucumbers.

Now my childhood fear is replaced by an even bigger one. What will life be like on our mud and sand flats without the erky perkies? And what will happen to our marine systems if we take out the sea cucumbers, and there is none left? Let’s hope it does not go that far.

By Sangeeta Mangubhai

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.

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.

Q&A session with Mosese Naleba

Q&A session with Mosese Naleba

WCS Volunteer Mosese Naleba

WCS Volunteer Mosese Naleba

Name: Mosese Naleba
Origin: Ra Province
Favourite Color: Blue
Field of Study: Currently completing a Diploma in Environmental Studies at the Fiji National University

How did you come to find out about WCS – Fiji?
This opportunity came about following my search for a “hands on” internship program. I started in April 2014 and will finish in January 2015.

What has been your most exciting experience with the Fiji Country Program?
It would be a draw between getting hands on experience with coral and fish data entry in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape as well as visiting my ancestral village of Verevere in Nakorotubu, Ra as part of our survey. No one in my family been there so it was an exciting experience for me to go as part of the WCS team and explore my roots.

It has also been an exciting time to travel around the country meeting new people along the way and to train resource owners on how to conduct Catch Per Unit Effort so that communities can monitor changes in their fish catch over time.

What exactly does a Diploma in Environmental Studies entail?
At the Fiji National University where I am currently completing my Diploma, the program equips students to understand broad environmental principles and blends both terrestrial and marine disciples however after joining this organisation; I definitely would like to focus more on marine conservation in Fiji.

What message would you share with someone who’s thinking of volunteering or working for conservation efforts in Fiji?
Working in conservation takes perseverance, hard work and commitment. Going into this field, a person must be driven to care and manage the resources we have been blessed with. Conservation is not about monetary gain but about the passion for the cause.

What will be your focus in 2015?
The plan is to finish off my Diploma in Environmental Studies than apply to do the Bachelors Degree programme. Eventually I would like to graduate with a Masters degree in Environmental Studies with an emphasis in the marine field.

In my extended family, apart from my female cousins I am currently the only male who’s received University level education so my family are very supportive of my aspirations and that is very important.

Fish for our future: putting our hopes in our Pacific Island leaders

Honorable Ministers responsible for Fisheries from (L-R) Vanuatu, PNG, Tongan, Cook Islands & Samoa with Fiji’s Permanent Secretary for Fisheries. Photo by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Honorable Ministers responsible for Fisheries from (L-R) Vanuatu, PNG, Tongan, Cook Islands & Samoa with Fiji’s Permanent Secretary for Fisheries. Photo by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Earlier this month Stacy Jupiter and I headed down to Nadi for the inaugural Pacific Bêche-de-Mer and the Future of Coastal Fisheries, hosted by the governments of Fiji, Marshall Islands and Tonga and IUCN’s Oceania Regional Office. The meeting was organised with the sole hope of obtaining political will and ministerial-level commitments to take urgent, much needed steps towards the management of bêche-de-mer (term for dried sea cucumbers) and other coastal fisheries important to Pacific Islanders.

Over three days participants talked about the over-exploited state of coastal fisheries in the Pacific, and acknowledged the hard truth that if the declines we see continue, within the next two decades, Pacific Islanders will no longer be able to rely on fish for our main source of protein. That truly frightens me – that in my lifetime our fish resources will no longer be enough to feed us all.

Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai facilitating the first session. Photo by IUCN Oceania

Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai facilitating the first session. Photo by IUCN Oceania

But managing coastal fisheries is challenging. Unlike our offshore fisheries that seem to get a lot of attention and resources, our inshore fisheries are much neglected. This is despite inshore fisheries contributing to almost half of many Pacific Island countries’ GDP, and to more than 90% of our protein needs. Most participants acknowledged that we need to move away from talking about how best to further extract our coastal fisheries resources, or develop them, to how best to help them recover.

After a number of “brutal honesty” sessions (and yes they were really called this!), we started to make headway. It felt like we were taking a big step forward when I turned up to breakfast on Friday morning, and was handed a “call to action” statement for immediate review and editing. Overnight, while I was blissfully sleeping, our Pacific Island leaders continued their frank discussions and decided that they wanted to sign a “call to action,” to signify their commitment to taking political leadership and implement more robust coastal fisheries management.

To all the cynics out there, yes I know it is just a small step and we have a lot of hard work ahead of us – but it felt like an important step. I felt incredibly proud to have been a part of the meeting as I put my hopes in our Pacific Island leaders – that they would take their call to action, and do exactly that, take action. Because if they do, we will be there at their side to help and support them.

By Sangeeta Mangubhai.

Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai (WCS) and Leanne Fernandez (IUCN) helping to wordsmith the ‘call to action’ document. Photo by IUCN Oceania

Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai (WCS) and Leanne Fernandez (IUCN) helping to wordsmith the ‘call to action’ document. Photo by IUCN Oceania