A turtle rodeo on Makogai island

WCS - Fiji Intern tags a turtle on Makogai island

WCS – Fiji Intern Namrata Chand tags a turtle on Makogai island

Words & Images by Namrata Chand.

In the Lomaiviti Province is an island called Makogai, otherwise known in the 1990s as the “image of hope”. The island was home to a leper colony, and the ruins of this colony still remain on the island. The lepers saw Makogai as their safe heaven; a place where they felt accepted and optimistic about getting cured.

Last week, I joined a team of researchers from the University of the South Pacific (USP) and the Fijian Department of Fisheries to Makogai Island to study the sea turtles that are known to both nest and forage (feed) around the island Fiji’s waters are home to five of the seven living species of sea turtles: green, hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, and olive ridley.

WCS - Fiji Intern Namrata Chand releases a turtle caught for genetic sampling

WCS – Fiji Intern Namrata Chand releases a turtle caught for genetic sampling

Our research had two aims. Firstly, we wanted to get genetic samples from foraging sea turtles around Makogai Island.The samples will contribute to a bigger project to identify genetic populations of sea turtles around Fiji, which is being led by Dr.Susanna Piovano from USP. We want to know if there are genetic differences between turtles that spend time in Fiji’s waters. Secondly, we wanted to identify areas where specifically sea turtles foraged around Makogai.

As we departed the weather did not look promising – it was raining and windy. We boarded on a fiber glass boat from the jetty near Queen Victoria School in Korovou and it took us about two and half hours to reach our destination. It was very bumpy ride and I was grateful to have reached the shores of Makogai safely. As the boat docked on the jetty, we noticed how clear and beautiful the waters were – we could already see the corals and different types of fish swimming around on the reefs. I could not wait to head out to the open waters to collect some field data.

A beautiful turtle specimen caught off Makogai island

A beautiful turtle specimen caught off Makogai island

The research was dependent on our ability to catch adult foraging turtles, and therefore the tide determined when we did our sampling. The technique we used to catch the turtles was called “turtle rodeo”. Basically this involved the careful capture of turtles while they were swimming around in their feeding grounds. We took the turtles ashore, where information was recorded on such as the length and width of their shell (called a carapace), and sex, and skin tissue samples were collected. Lastly, we tagged the front flipper, photographed the animal and released it back into the wild, uninjured.

Turtle rodeo was challenging – Kape from the Department of Fisheries would have to make several attempts to jump from a slow moving boat and capture a sea turtle in the water. After six days of hard work out in the field we managed to collect data from nine green turtles (Vonu).

Returning to Kia Island

WCS staff Sirilo Dulunaqio looks at Kia Island approaching in the distance.

WCS staff Sirilo Dulunaqio looks at Kia Island approaching in the distance.

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.

A Kia fisher holds up a sizable catch

A Kia fisher holds up a sizable catch

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.

Seagrass and algal beds emergent at low tide on Kia Island

Seagrass and algal beds emergent at low tide on Kia Island

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.

WCS staff Sirilo Dulunaqio interviewing a fisher from Ligau Village, Kia Island

WCS staff Sirilo Dulunaqio interviewing a fisher from Ligau Village, Kia Island

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.

Trained fish catch monitors on Kia Island are recording the size and sexual maturity status of each fish caught.

Trained fish catch monitors on Kia Island are recording the size and sexual maturity status of each fish caught.

Kia fishers are regularly assessing whether fish caught are sexually mature by looking at their gonads.

Kia fishers are regularly assessing whether fish caught are sexually mature by looking at their gonads.

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.

One of many pipefish hunting in turf algal habitat on heavily impacted fringing reefs of Kia Island

One of many pipefish hunting in turf algal habitat on heavily impacted fringing reefs of Kia Island

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.

Understanding the role communities play in the sea cucumber fishery

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By Sangeeta Mangubhai

We are currently in Natokalau village, where we will be based for a week doing our value chain analysis surveys in different villages in Kubulau district, in Bua Province. Margaret Fox, Wildlife Conservation Society’s dynamic social scientist, has been leading the surveys with Tevita Vodivodi from the Department of Fisheries and our lively volunteers. Each day they sit down with fishers from different villages and ask them questions that help us understand their role and engagement in this fishery.

Questions vary from when they go fishing for sea cucumbers, how often and with whom, to questions relating to their catch and how much they earn from selling different species of sea cucumbers. We try and find out if they process the sea cucumbers themselves or prefer to sell the live animals to middlemen or exporters directly. Importantly, we ask how much the money they receive from sea cucumbers contributes to their fortnightly or monthly income. This allows us to understand how dependent they are on the resource, and if they have other options available to them, such as agriculture or copra.

Quality of the processing and the final product are important in this fishery and can impact on the income local communities make from their sea cucumbers. Villagers that know how, and how long to cook sea cucumbers without causing their skins to blister and break open get a better price for their product. Those that know how to gut, salt and dry the sea cucumbers get an even higher price, if it is done properly.

What has been interesting to learn is how some villagers operate individually, and others operate collectively. The ones that are operating collectively as a village, strictly controlling tabu areas and the timing of harvests appear to be doing much better. The money they earn gets used to provide facilities (e.g. schools, church) and village projects where everyone benefits. They also have stronger bargaining powers when it comes to selling their product, and more incentive to manage their fishery sustainably.

As Margaret and I reflected on this, she reminded me of an old slogan that was used in Fiji a few years ago that appears to be alive here in Kubulau – “Conservation Begins With Communities.”

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.