After only 2 weeks respite from our periodic harvest surveys in Kubulau, the Fiji marine team has again packed up our kit and by planes, boats and automobiles made our way to the remote regions of western Bua Province. Given our success assisting the districts of Kubulau and Wainunu to develop and implement their ecosystem-based management plans, the Bua Provincial Office requested for WCS to replicate the model with the remaining districts in the province. So we’re here to use our well-honed survey methodology to gain baseline data that will allow us to develop recommendations for marine protected area (MPA) network design. We’ll present the recommendations back to the communities during the first half of 2013 to ideally help local communities achieve their fisheries and livelihoods goals.
Our first destination was Navunievu village in Bua District. Natalie and I, as early arrivals, spent the afternoon drinking kava waiting for the others to arrive. The ladies on our team were assigned sleeping quarters on the floor in the village hall, which meant we were constantly the centre of attention for eager children curious to check out photo slideshows and chatty ladies wanting to constantly peer at what we were doing. This made working, changing and sleeping challenging to say the least, and we jealously coveted the boys’ beds and privacy in their separate houses.
Our second challenge was the weather. “E tau na uca veisiga i ke? (Does it rain everyday here?)” I asked just about anyone who would listen. They generally would just smile. Perhaps my Fijian accent is terrible or it is just a silly question—because, yes, of course it rains every day in Navunievu. This put a slight damper on our fieldwork when lunches of tinned tuna turned to tuna soup, and visibility at certain sites, particularly near the mangroves, turned to pea soup. However, despite the poor vis, we were pleased to note that the Bua District tabu (MPA), established nearly a year ago, was working well, with plenty of large food fish.
As if on cue, it began to pour as we departed Navunievu at the end of our first week, but the skies soon cleared and a rainbow halo rimmed the peaks of Yadua Island, our next destination. The smaller island adjacent to Yadua, Yadua Taba, is famous in Fiji as the home to Fiji’s endemic crested iguanas. The National Trust of Fiji has worked with the communities to establish a wildlife sanctuary on Yadua Taba for the approximately 20,000 iguanas living in one of the few remaining intact dry forests in Fiji. It is believed that the first iguanas rafted here across the Pacific from South America. Given that Yadua Taba is home to 90-95% of the crested iguanas in Fiji, the species is highly vulnerable to threats from invasive alien species, such as rats, as well as habitat damage and climate change. Twenty thousand iguanas is quite a lot for a 70 ha island, so it didn’t take us long to spot them hanging out in the trees, munching on hibiscus leaves. Some were willing photo subjects—others were more feisty. I had two Jurassic Park moments when the lens of my camera was attacked by some not-so-amused reptiles.
The community of Yadua village has also established a permanent, no-take tabu area on the reefs and other coastal habitats around Yadua Taba. However, our first impressions are that it may be subject to heavy poaching, given how quickly the fish flee from approaching divers. Unfortunately, these days in Fiji, given the weak legislation to support community-managed MPAs and lack of capacity for enforcement, once a tabu becomes well-known, it is like having a giant flashing beacon saying “FISH HERE!” It is no help that the latest draft of the Inshore Fisheries Decree has been put on hold indefinitely. I’m trying to stay positive that we can still empower the communities and provincial governments to work within the existing system and restrict fishing licenses.
The sea cucumber (or beche-de-mer) fishery requires the most urgent regulation. In general, Fijians do not eat most beche-de-mer. They are sold to middlemen for export to Hong Kong and on to the Chinese market. As single white teat may fetch over FJ$100, the perception is that they are just easy cash for the taking sitting on the reef. However, there are three big reasons why people should pay attention to the serial exploitation of species and regulate the fishery. First, sea cucumbers are the sweepers of the sea. They play important roles in nutrient cycling, which keeps algal blooms at bay. Secondly, with exemptions from the Fiji Department of Fisheries to collect beche-de-mer on SCUBA but improper training, divers are literally killing themselves by pushing depth limits to find valuable species as they become more and more rare. Lastly, the middlemen are taking most of the profits. If the communities were able to have more control, they could keep more of the benefits for themselves and control extraction rates so that they might always be able to “cash out” a haul in times of real need.
As it stands now in Yadua, there is a Korean middleman who has been operating from the next bay for over 20 years with the permission of the high chief of the area, who does not live on the island. The community is unhappy, and the chief of Yadua has encouraged the young men to collect as many beche-de-mer as they can, thus forming a race to catch the last individuals. Currently the wealth is evident in the community, with generators, compressors, televisions and other appliances that we do not usually see in rural villages. However, I can only imagine the impending social issues that might be faced once the cash flow dries up when beche-de-mer populations collapse.
Another critical challenge facing Yadua is potential impacts of extreme weather from climate change. Water security is a serious issue on the island. Recently, a borehole was located to supply the village with water for drinking and cleaning, but it requires a diesel-powered generator to operate the pump. Just the other day, the community ran out of fuel for the generator, and the thought was to catch some of the wild goats on the island to sell for purchase of more fuel. They did indeed catch the goats, but with heavy winds, they were unable to take them across to Vanua Levu and no fuel could be bought. Meanwhile, the water levels continued to drop in the barrels and buckets.
For our third week in the field, we moved over to Yaqaga Island in Lekutu District, also home to iguanas and, much to our pleasure, running water and flush toilets! The men of Yaqaga are also busy collecting beche-de-mer, which they sell to another middleman based in Galoa village. They have already seen declines in numbers on the surrounding reefs and are fishing less valuable species, like snakefish. Meanwhile, untrained divers are putting their lives at risk plunging to depths of over 80 m to find the remaining individuals. One diver, who recently suffered the bends, is now relegated to growing watermelons on the far side of the island. Unlike in Yadua, the people of Yaqaga and Galoa asked questions about what might be the impact of wholesale removal of beche-de-mer and what could be alternative sources of income for their children.
These communities also have another source of concern. Several years ago, the Fiji Government granted permission to a Chinese mining company to extract bauxite, used to make aluminium cans. The Chinese company was smart— in order to get their foot in the door in Fiji, they chose a small (<30 ha) site in pine plantation of limited conservation value and developed plans to export the ore back to China for the more ‘dirty’ processing steps. However, in the future, ore from other, larger claims may be processed in Fiji. In the meantime, communities say that they are already feeling the impact of increased runoff of sediments from the Nawailevu mine and jetty. They say it has become harder to find Anadara clams (‘kaikoso’) and the waters have become increasingly silty.
Clearly there is much work to be done in this region and we are eager to help the communities both sensibly engage with the natural resource extraction industries, as well as develop management plans to balance their own needs for income generation with sustainable livelihoods. Stay tuned.