The bumpy road to a conservation career

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.

Stacy's 12 year old artistic talents on display in her bedroom mural

Stacy’s 12 year old artistic talents on display in her bedroom mural

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.

Stacy as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon harvesting tilapia

Stacy as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon harvesting tilapia

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.

Getting stuck in the mud in Gabon helped Stacy learn how to deal with adversity

Getting stuck in the mud in Gabon helped Stacy learn how to deal with adversity

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.

Spending time in local communities has been the highlight of Stacy's experience with WCS

Spending time in local communities has been the highlight of Stacy’s experience with WCS

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.

Green energy powers the Suva marathon

Former Pacific sprint queen Makelesi Bulikiobo and Robert Kafoa lead the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape team at the Suva Marathon. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Former Pacific sprint queen Makelesi Bulikiobo and Robert Kafoa lead the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape team at the Suva Marathon. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

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.

Even the young came out to the Suva Marathon to run in support of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Even the young came out to the Suva Marathon to run in support of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

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.

Camari Kena and Kini Koto ran the Suva Marathon in support of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited.

Camari Kena and Kini Koto ran the Suva Marathon in support of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited.

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”.

Pacific Games Triple Jump Gold medalist Eugene Vollmer lent his support toward the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Pacific Games Triple Jump Gold medalist Eugene Vollmer lent his support toward the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

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.

Vatu-i-Ra Seascape stakeholders came out in full force during the Suva Marathon to support the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Vatu-i-Ra Seascape stakeholders came out in full force during the Suva Marathon to support the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

“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.

Fijian broadcast personalities Mervin Singh and Michelle Tevita - Singh running the Suva Marathon. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Fijian broadcast personalities Mervin Singh and Michelle Tevita – Singh running the Suva Marathon. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

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.

NatureFiji/MareqetiViti's mascot 'Drautabua' ran the Suva Marathon which captured the attention of the young and young at heart. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

NatureFiji/MareqetiViti’s mascot ‘Drautabua’ ran the Suva Marathon which captured the attention of the young and young at heart. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

“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.

The ebb and flow of life on board a traditional double hulled canoe

Words by Dwain Qalovaki

A wise crew member on board the Uto ni Yalo once told me that “the vaka or canoe chooses her voyagers and that each person’s involvement is predestined”.

Fiji's Uto ni Yalo under Sydney's iconic Harbour Bridge & Opera House. Image by MUA VOYAGE

Fiji’s Uto ni Yalo under Sydney’s iconic Harbour Bridge & Opera House. Image by MUA VOYAGE

Under the guidance of Captain Angelo Smith from Lautoka and the experience of Sail Master Colin Philp, the 16 member crew on board the Uto ni Yalo journeyed from Fiji to Vanuatu to to Southport, Australia where I boarded.

For the first 36 hours of my voyage on board Fiji’s 22 metre long double hulled traditional voyaging canoe, I honestly thought this saying could not be further from the truth as I literally hung off the star bound side of the canoe battling sea sickness to gain my stripes as a Uto ni Yalo voyager.

Preparing breakfast in the galley, I was the Uto ni Yalo chef in Australia. Image by MUA VOYAGE

Preparing breakfast in the galley, I was the Uto ni Yalo chef in Australia. Image by MUA VOYAGE

Our journey as part of the Mua Voyage saw the Uto ni Yalo join her sister canoes from Aotearoa, Cook Islands and Samoa to sail across 6,000 nautical miles of open ocean to Australia where the 64 crew members from eight Pacific Island countries made a “Pacific Call for Global Action” at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney from 12 – 19 November, 2014.

What a sight to witness a flotilla of traditional Pacific voyaging canoes sailing into Sydney’s Darling Harbour to mark the opening of the congress which is a once a decade global forum on protected areas.

In Yarra Bay, Australia the Uto ni Yalo berthed alongside her sister canoes from Aotearoa, Cook Islands & Samoa. Image by MUA VOYAGE

In Yarra Bay, Australia the Uto ni Yalo berthed alongside her sister canoes from Aotearoa, Cook Islands & Samoa. Image by MUA VOYAGE

Alongside our political leaders, which included the Presidents of Palau and Kiribati and Prime Minister of Cook Islands, we made a united call to the world for extraordinary partnerships and commitments to value the global significance of our Pacific island space, in a climate challenged planet.

The Uto ni Yalo crew sailing into Sydneys Darling Harbour with Pacific island leaders. Image by MUA VOYAGE

The Uto ni Yalo crew sailing into Sydneys Darling Harbour with Pacific island leaders. Image by MUA VOYAGE

Our region collectively made a “Pacific Promise” to convert 3.7 million square kilometres of ocean space into marine managed areas. Closer to home and heart, this includes a reaffirmed commitment by the Fijian Government at the 2014 United Nations Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) meeting to protect 30 percent of our territorial seas by 2020.

Uto ni Yalo crew members attending the opening plenary session at the IUCN World Parks Congress. Image by MUA VOYAGE

Uto ni Yalo crew members attending the opening plenary session at the IUCN World Parks Congress. Image by MUA VOYAGE

As part of our 30 percent commitment, the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape which rests between Fiji’s two main islands, is one of these ocean spaces being earmarked for special attention due to its immense ecological value. Encompassing the province of Bua, Lomaiviti, Ra and Tailevu and its adjacent waters, the seascape has well over 120 endemic plant species with more than 1,000 fish and 300 coral species which are intrinsically tied to our “Fijianess” and the livelihood of our future generations.

The Mua Voyage made a "Pacific Call for Global Action" to protect our oceans. Image by Stacy Jupiter

The Mua Voyage made a “Pacific Call for Global Action” to protect our oceans. Image by Stacy Jupiter

As an indigenous Fijian who has grown up in big cities (well big for Pacific standards!), sailing on the Uto ni Yalo has been an eye opening experience. On one hand I learnt how our ancestors sailed across vast distances guided solely by nature to reach other islands, which speaks to how developed our ancient voyaging cultures are. On the other hand, it has rekindled a passion and traditional duty to advance the conservation of our natural resources, which we inherit as youths and eventually pass onto the next generation of Fijians.

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

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!).