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BY: Sangeeta Mangubhai
Over the last two days we have been diving in the Namena Marine Reserve. There was much debate before we got here whether Nai’a Cruises should venture up to the reserve, as there were reports of large scale damage both to the land, coastal villages and adjacent coral reefs. The marine reserve in particularly, juts out like a finger from the main island of Vanua Levu and the eye of the storm passed over it.
Namena is special because it is the largest no-take marine reserve in Fiji, and Nai’a Cruises has been diving these reefs for decades, promoting its conservation alongside the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Coral Alliance. Thousands of divers from all over the world have visited these iconic reefs. Countless photos are captured of the marine life in the reserve, and numerous inspirational articles appear in dive magazines about Namena’s rich and diverse fish, invertebrate and coral communities.
Namena is part of the Kubulau District where WCS has worked for more than a decade supporting local communities on natural resource management. The communities have a management plan that outlines how they manage their resources from the mountains all the way down to the reefs. The people of Kubulau have inspired other districts in Bua province to develop their own district ‘ridge to reef’ management plans.
What was firstly evident on arriving at the Namena Marine Reserve was that Tropical Cyclone Winston had decimated Namena Island and the small eco-resort there. The island once lush with island forest, supporting a massive population of seabirds, was now barren, devoid of any green foliage. Trees were bent over, twisted and uprooted by the 185 mph winds. Only a handful of masked boobies (an iconic seabird) sat on bare tree branches, exposed and baking in the sun. We visited the island and spoke to some of the resort staff trying to clean up the island and salvage any remaining materials they could. Their families are thankfully all safe, but every building has been destroyed including their dive center and their jetty.
Under the water, the reefs in the marine reserve have done better than Namena Island. The cyclone has left a somewhat patchy trail of destruction. Some reefs we dived on were badly damaged with sea fans, soft corals and delicate branching corals the hardest hit. Some sea fans were ripped out by the roots, while others that were 2-3 meters across have been shredded in half. There were areas where large volumes of old and new rubble accumulated in between the reef structures and are shifting around with the currents (bad!), and other areas where the rubble was cleared away and swept to deeper waters (good!), leaving clear bare substrate ready for new coral recruits to colonise. Some areas the force of the waves had ripped off large massive corals and boulders.
Despite the damage, there was a lot of evidence of the resilience of the Namena Marine Reserve that gave me hope. There were clear areas of reef that seemed largely untouched by the cyclone. Sites popular with tourists like the ‘Two Thumbs Up’ and ‘Kansas’ were for most part intact, and continued to flourish all the way from the base of pinnacles to just below the water surface. It is almost impossible to predict which reefs survived the cyclone, and which ones sustained serious damage. There is no clear pattern so far. We would dive on one reef to find it broken apart by waves, turn a corner and find a reef intact and flourishing. The fish and shark life seemed to be at this stage, largely unaffected. We were lucky to swim with white tip and grey reef sharks, large manta rays and big schools of big-eyed trevally, surgeonfish, and fusiliers. Well-protected marine reserves like Namena have both a great chance of recovery, and will play an important role reseeding adjacent ‘less protected’ or ‘less managed’ reefs. For the community of Kubulau, the the Namena Marine Reserve is not only a biodiversity asset they can share with divers that visit Fiji, but also an insurance policy to ensure they always have healthy fisheries.
BY: Sangeeta Mangubhai
Our first dives were in and around the Vatu-i-Ra Conservation Park, which has been proposed as a conservation area by local communities from Nakorotubu District, as part of a unique partnership with local dive tourism operators and the Ra Provincial Office, supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society. We knew the eye Cyclone Winston passed over Ra, destroying up to 90 percent of people’s homes throughout the province, while churning up the sea in its path – so we were expecting some damage to the reefs.
As we headed out to our first dive site we saw Vatu-i-Ra in the distance, an island of cultural and historical importance to the village of Nasau, and home to nine species of breeding seabirds. With more than 20,000 pairs of breeding Black Noddies (Anous tenuirostris), the island is recognised as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area. What was apparent, even at a distance was that almost all of the trees on Vatu-i-Ra Island seemed to be stripped of their leaves and very few seabirds could be seen. Without the leaves for cover, aboreal nests or chicks will not survive. We will know more next month when BirdLife International, NatureFiji-MareqetiViti and the Wildlife Conservation Society partner up, to do detailed assessments of the island and surrounding reefs.
As I rolled back off the skiff into the water for my first dive, I was dreading what was below the surface. As I opened my eyes and descended down to 20 meters, I was surprised by the condition of the reef. While there were broken branching and plating corals, and larger coral heads that had fallen over in the storm surge, the majority of the reef, for most part, was intact. Hard corals which are critical for building coral reefs and for providing a home and shelter for small fish and invertebrates, were still abundant at all depths including in the shallows. In fact the cyclone seemed to have churned up the water, and fish schools with thriving on abundance of plankton (small microscopic animals) in the water column.
What was missing though, were the beautiful colourful soft corals and sea fans that Fiji is well-known for, and for which divers travel across the world to visit. Wind and wave action had uprooted both soft coral and sea fans, leaving behind bare scoured rock surfaces. Within two weeks of the cyclone, these areas were already covered in a fine layer of green turf algae.
However, as long as there are enough herbivorous fish in the water, over time this layer of turf algae will be mown down (eaten) by these fish, and the hard and soft corals that survived will spawn and produce larvae that will settle and recruit back onto the reefs. Disturbances such as cyclones can actually be good for reefs, as it opens up spaces and can allow new species to settle, provided the damage is not catastrophic. I am relieved to see that the damage to the Vatu-i-Ra Conservation Park and surrounding reefs is not catastrophic, and those reefs will continue to thrive and remaining productive. If well protected, the conservation park may provide a refuge for coral and reef fish species, and help reseed adjacent reefs.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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!
Avid television viewers in Fiji and across the Pacific region can now look forward to the increase in nature documentaries from the comfort of their homes.
The Pacific’s largest broadcaster, Fiji Television Limited (Fiji TV) announced its partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) for free programs on conservation efforts to encourage public support for the protection of the environment.
Fiji TV’s Head of Content, Karen Lobendhan says that the yearlong partnership is about providing compelling nature programming to not only Fiji but the region as well which will be airing on its Free to Air and Direct to Home platforms.
The partnership between WCS-Fiji and Fiji TV as the largest broadcaster in the Pacific will see 13 engaging nature documentaries viewed across 14 Pacific island countries and territories.
“These documentaries will feature different types of environmental issues that are relevant to us and will include feature stories about iconic and totemic species such as turtles, humpback whales and fish that are important for us to eat” said WCS-Fiji Country Director, Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai.
The documentaries where filmed in Fiji, Hawaii, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and other countries like Hong Kong and the United States of America. A few of the documentaries have also attracted international film festivals which reflect the quality of television content that will be broadcast as a result of this partnership.
“The first of the documentaries focuses on showcasing the immense socio-economic and ecological values of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape and explores our Fijian connection to the environment”, Dr. Mangubhai added.