Koro Expedition 2014

It was the fourth pass in a tiny plane over the remote island of Koro that I lost my sense of awe at the lush green volcanic slopes crashing into turquoise coloured reefs.. and began to worry for my life. As we wondered how much fuel the plane had left, the pilots peered through the window for a glimpse of the fog-shrouded runway that had completely vanished in the rain. As I tried not to grip the seat in front of me, the ancient propeller plane circled one last time, lurched to the ground, and bumped and skidded uphill onto the wet-slicked landing strip to stop at a tiny building. We had arrived on Koro island in style.

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Koro, like many islands in the dotted archipelago of Fiji, practice a traditional form of fishery management to periodically harvest fish from the sea. To build up enough fish for a feast, a community decides not fish a small area (called the tabu and pronounced tambu) for a period of time and wait to harvest it in an intense effort over several days or weeks. WCS Fiji has been working with many of these communities over the last few years to document the ecological impacts of traditional harvests and help communities make decisions on when, where and for how long to close off tabu areas in order to rebuild fish stocks. In the next week, the village of Nakodu would be fishing their tabu for the first time in over a year. Researchers from WCS, the University of Western Australia and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, had taken ferries, trucks and moderately unreliable planes from all over the world to arrive at Nakodu village on Koro Island and document this year’s harvest.

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The village of Nakodu is nestled in the slope of an ancient volcano now covered with steep, lush foliage intermixed with local crops of cassava, papaya, sugar cane and coconuts. There are about 60+ households in the village, a host of friendly Nakodu villagers to greet you and many a welcoming ibe dina (pandanus mat) to sit and drink kava into the late hours of the night. Made from crushing the roots of a kava plant (Piper methysticum) into a white powder that is stirred through water and chugged from a coconut bowl, drinking kava is a nightly social activity (and commonly called ‘grog’ for the notoriously groggy and numbing hangover you face each morning).

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On our first evening, freshly clad in our traditional sulus or sarongs, the village chief was presented with a bundle of fresh kava root and a sperm whale’s tooth – a sacred gift in Fijian culture to show how seriously we took our request – and we asked permission for the village to open the tabu closure and document the community’s catch of fish. By lantern light during the sevusevu, the village chief consulted the elders, chanted in Fijian, and granted us permission.

It’s been a year since Stacy and her team last visited Nakodu, but everyone remembered them and their record haul of over 3000 coral reef fish from the tabu last year. Since then, the fish inside the tabu had been growing in size and number and WCS had returned to see the impacts of a second harvest on Nakodu’s fish communities. Tabu are important traditional fisheries management tools, but increasing pressure to open the tabus for harvesting had left them potentially vulnerable to overexploitation. With sustainable management, locally managed areas like tabus can maintain fish populations over the long-term, harvest fish to pay for community services, support fishing livelihoods and empower communities with the ability to manage their own resources sustainably. But many questions remain unanswered, such as, how often or how intensive can a community harvest a tabu and how long to let the areas recover in between harvests so that fish populations grow in size and number. By returning to Koro island one year after the last fish harvest, Stacy and her team can begin to reveal the answers to these questions.

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The team spent the first few days of counting corals and fish inside and outside the tabu to assess the status of corals and fish before the harvest. Dive tanks, masks, snorkels, cameras, transects lines and assorted gear were hauled in and out of the water each day. One of the biggest challenges was a broken dive compressor that had been damaged in the two days of travel from Suva — without it, we had no way to fill the 24 SCUBA tanks they had brought all the way from Suva. Luckily, the logistical creativity of Waisea, Margy and Yash sorted out the compressor and another boat (the other WCS boat was in for repair on another island).

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As usual, I was travelling on my stomach and can happily provide an account of our daily feasts, including taro leave patties, roti dipped in freshly squeezed coconut milk, eggplant-wrapped fish fried in coconut, freshwater prawns harvested from the stream, octopus and fish: fish soup, boiled fish, fried fish. We even gnawed on raw fish straight out of the ocean briefly marinated in lime juice and hot chili (thanks to Jordan’s spearfishing and Didi’s Master Chef skills on the boat at lunchtime).

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While we were surveying Nakodu’s coral reefs, the women of the village were fixing holes in the net and the men were gathering long water vines (or wa-lai) for the harvest. On our fifth day in the village, it was harvest time. Amidst pouring rain, the village and the WCS team swam out to the reef crest and the harvest began! More than 80 people from the village wearing tennis shoes, flip flops, gum boots or in bare feet hung onto the vines and started to pull them in closer and closer together. I must admit that at first it was hard to see how hanging on for dear life to a kilometre-long tree branch in the middle of a coral reef could catch hundreds and hundreds of fish. But as the vine was pulled in tighter and the boats coordinated the fish drive like cowboys on horses with the rich call of the triton shell, we stood shallower and shallower on the reef until we were all side-to-side. In front of us was a large, seething and hectic fish ball of snappers, parrotfish, surgeonfish, wrasses and other reef fish trapped in the middle!Everyone suddenly rushed towards a gill net, forcing the fish into a surging mass of mesh, feet, heads, tails, people, knives flashing, nets straining and much cheering. It was pure chaos! The net was barely able to be hauled up onto the skiff (apparently they nearly sank a boat in last year’s harvest!) and everyone erupted into a cheers, hoots and hollers at the giant haul of fish in the harvest.

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As dusk turned to dark turned to pitch black, the net was landed on shore and the harvest assessed. Under the light of headlamps and torches, Stacy and her team identified and measured pile after pile of fish, counting 1001 fish in all sizes, colours, shapes and species. Covered in fish scales, we finally stood back and watched the ladies organize and dole out small piles of fish for every family in Nakodu and the neighbouring village of Mudu. Celebrations were in order (after a dinner of fish!) and we spent the night gathered around the never-ending kava bowl, listened to traditional Fijian guitar music by lamplight as the generator died and shared bowls of grog and dances with our fellow fishers and neighbours in Nakodu.

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After a successful harvest, we all head our different ways. Most of the team will stay on for a few days to resurvey the sites and assess at the impact of the intense harvest before heading back to Suva. The UWA researchers will have many hours of processing fish survey videos ahead of them and the California team will start mathematically modelling the impact of the harvest. As for me, I head home to Canada to think about protecting coral reefs from climate change and the incredible and inspiring cultural practices that these coastal ecosystems support.

Vanaka vaka levu Fiji, and thanks for all the fish.

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Koro team 2014: Stacy Jupiter, Waisea Naisilisili, Yashika Nand, Margaret Fox, Sirilo Dulunaqio (Didi), Kino Koto, Luke Gordon, Jordan Goetze, Todd Bond, Crow White, Paul Carvalho, Emily Darling, with many, many thanks to the friendliest village of Nakodu, Koro island

This was a guest blog written and photographed by Dr. Emily Darling, a David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow at the University of North Carolina and an affiliate research with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Follow her on Twitter (@emilysdarling) or her website (www.emilysdarling.com

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