A first look at coral reefs in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape

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.

Assessing coral reefs for cyclone damage and coral bleaching

Assessing coral reefs for cyclone damage and coral bleaching

BY: Sangeeta Mangubhai

On Saturday, 20 February 2016, Fiji with a population of 900,000 was hit by Category 5 Cyclone Winston. It was one of the largest cyclones we had experienced with winds of up to 185mph. Over a 24-hour period the cyclone left a trail of destruction through the centre of the country, and through the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape where the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) works. The Fijian Government immediately announced a 30 day state of emergency, calling for coordinated assistance from NGOs, private sector and humanitarian aid agencies. As images flood in from across the country, we are getting the full sense of the damage that has been done especially within the communities we work, and the long recovery road that is ahead of Fiji.

Much of our effort so far, has been around providing food and water relief to our communities until authorities and humanitarian organisations can step in. However, over the next 10 days, through the generous support of Nai’a Cruises, a live-aboard ship that has been diving in Fiji since 1993, I have the opportunity to survey coral reefs throughout the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape to assess the damage caused by cyclone Winston, and collect data on coral bleaching.

Why is this important? Fijians are highly reliant on their coral reef for both food and for livelihoods. In fact, fish is the main source of protein, and therefore healthy productive coral reefs and their associated fisheries, are critical to Fiji’s food security.

I will be using two main techniques to assess the reefs. Firstly, I will be taking a series of random underwater photos from about half a meter above the reef surface at 12-15m depth. They have to be random because I have to be careful not to bias my sampling and favour one type of substrate (e.g. coral) over another (e.g. sand). So what I do is close my eyes for about five to ten kicks of my fins, open my eyes and wherever I land I point the camera down and take a photo. All the photos are later analysed in software specifically designed to help capture how much hard coral covers the reef, versus soft coral, algae, sand or rock.

Secondly, I will be assessing the scale and intensity of coral bleaching across different reefs throughout the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Just before the cyclone, there were increasing reports from dive operators and local scientists of coral bleaching throughout Fiji, caused by the El Niño cycle. Coral bleaching occurs when a coral is stressed which more often is in response to increases in sea surface temperatures. Under stress, coral will sever the unique relationship they have with an algae living inside them called zooxanthellae. The algae gives coral their colour and turn sunlight into food. Without zooxanethellae corals become pale to white (hence the term coral bleaching), and slowly start to starve.

On this trip, I will visit both sites I surveyed in 2001 with Nai’a Cruises, as well as explore new areas. The data I will collect can also serve as a baseline for both measuring changes on coral reefs, as well as the recovery of reefs, post-cyclone and post-bleaching. The ability of our reefs to either resist stresses like from cyclones and high sea surface temperatures will affect how healthy they are, and therefore their ability to support local fisheries in Fiji.

WCS-Fiji: Busy but Fulfilling Year


Dr Sangeeta Mangubhai, Director, WCS-Fiji

2015 has been a busy but fulfilling year for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Fiji Country Program, as we launched a number of fisheries initiatives including a Women in Fisheries Programme to support the economic empowerment of rural fisherwomen in Fiji.

Our management team has assisted the remaining districts in Bua Province come to the near completion of their ecosystem-based management plans, and the communities of Koro and Ovalau commence their island-based plans. WCS is now working closely with the Provincial office and district representatives to synthesize district plans into a single integrated coastal management plan for Bua Province building on the three pillars of environment, people and development.

Sea Cucumbers_VCA
WCS and Department of Fisheries staff conducting sea cucumber surveys in Bua Province

In partnership with the Department of Fisheries, our science team developed new survey and analytical skills to understand the value chains of key invertebrate fisheries in Fiji. We also applied a new analytical framework called the Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database to assess the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of locally managed marine areas and tabu areas in Fiji. Dr. Stacy Jupiter continued to lead complementary work to look at the impacts of periodic harvests from tabu areas which will be developed into guidance for best practice management that can be shared all across Fiji.


WCS continued to play a strong role on the Protected Areas Committee in 2015, and has been invited to join the BIOFIN Committee under the Department of Environment, and Fisheries Offshore Marine Reserve Committee under the Department of Fisheries. In the upcoming months, we will evaluate our conservation work to date and will formulate a new 5 year strategy for WCS-Fiji for launch in 2016, that feeds into a larger Melanesia Strategy. We will continue our commitments to integrated coastal management, ecosystem-based management at district and islands-scale, providing high-quality, scientifically-sound guidance on protected area management and policy, and fostering the enabling conditions for sustainable coastal fisheries management in 2016, while expanding our work on payments for ecosystem services.


Margaret Fox conducting socioeconomic interviews to look at impact of locally managed marine areas

Our Annual Report for 2015 I now available for downloading from


On behalf of the WCS Fiji team, we look forward to continuing and strengthening our partnerships in country and the region, while exploring new opportunities for collaboration. We thank everyone for their support and look forward to a productive and inspiring 2016.

Vinaka vaka levu,

Sangeeta Mangubhai, Director, WCS Fiji



Images by Francis Mangubhai (top), Sangeeta Mangubhai (middle), Stacy Jupiter (bottom)

Mud crabs – what are they really worth?

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Department of Fisheries staff are partnering up a second time this year to look at seafood supply chains in Fiji. Learning from our experience with sea cucumbers, we are conducting a series of surveys to understand and map out the mud crab fishery in Bua Province, all the way from the fisher to consumer.

Preparing the mud crab harvest for market in Bua province.

Preparing mud crabs for sale at markets in Vanua Levu

Mud crabs (or qari as they are known locally), are a high value species that is popular in Fiji. There is almost nothing known about the fishery in Fiji, which is dominated by women fishers. The last known data on catch volumes for example, comes from the 1980s. We are woefully in need of an update!

Women are traditionally the main harvesters of mud crab in Fiji.

Women are traditionally the main fishers of mud crabs in Fiji.

The questionnaire is designed to help understand the key consumers and how they like their product. For example, is there a particular size or quality that is expected? When is demand highest? And who are the key players in the industry and what are their roles and relationships to each other?

Catching mud crabs in the dense mangroves of Bua province.

Catching mud crabs in the dense mangroves of Bua province.

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 mud crabs, we can take the right actions or put the right policies in place that ensures our fisheries are sustainable.

The first round of surveys was done in 19 villages across 8 districts in Vanua Levu over a ten day period in late November and early December. During this period Margaret Fox who leads WCS’ Women in Fisheries Program, met with both men and women fishers to ask them the catching and sale of mud crabs. At the same time WCS biologist Yashika Nand headed out to the mangroves with some of the women fishers to look at the size and species composition of these forest areas and where they were harvesting from. Over the next few weeks Yashika will be putting together a study to assess the health of mud crab populations in Bua Province. Hopefully if our surveys are successful, we will have the most up to date information on mud crabs that can be used by the Department of Fisheries to improve the management of this locally important fishery.

Words by Sangeeta Mangubhai and images by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative

Marine Spatial Planning to Protect Biodiversity and $71M Fisheries and Tourism in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape

A group picture of all the stakeholders from across Government, Industry and Civil Society Organisations

Workshop participants from across government and civil society organisations

The Wildlife Conservation Society in collaboration with the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests hosted the second workshop on “Marine Spatial Planning for the Vatu-I-Ra Seascape” at the Tanoa Plaza Hotel in Suva on 8-9 December, 2015. The chief guest, the Acting Permanent Secretary for Fisheries and Forest, Mr. Sanaila Naqali opened the workshop providing full support for marine spatial planning in Fiji.

The Fijian Government's Acting Permanent Secretary for Fisheries Sanaila Naqali opened the workshop

Acting Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests Mr. Sanaila Naqali opening the spatial planning workshop

Marine spatial planning is a tool and a practical way to create and establish a more rational use of marine space and the interactions among its uses, to balance demands for development with the need to protect the environment, and to deliver social and economic outcomes in an open and planned way. This is the first time Fiji has attempted marine spatial planning over its state-owned offshore waters. We also have very few examples in the world of governments successfully applying marine spatial planning over offshore waters, so it is exciting to be leading such work in Fiji.

Fisheries Officer Tevita Vodivodidi presents on potential offshore areas

Fisheries Officer Tevita Vodivodi presents on zones for potential offshore marine managed areas

The Vatu-i-Ra Seascape is one of the most diverse and productive areas in Fiji, with the tourism and fisheries sector alone contributing at least FJ $71 million annually to the national economy. Marine spatial planning will ensure that  economic as well as cultural, social and biological values in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape are maintained in a balanced and fair way.

Discussion continues on areas that can be set aside as marine protected areas

Discussion continues on areas that can be set aside as marine managed areas in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape

Over 1.5 days, participants of the second marine spatial planning workshop reviewed areas they had identified as potential offshore (or deeper water) managed areas in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape in July 2015. Specifically they discussed and gained consensus on the placement, size and location of marine managed areas, and developed specific zones for each area. The successful establishment of potential marine managed areas in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape will make an important contribution to the government of Fiji’s commitment to protect 30% of its seas, including deep water offshore areas by 2020. This process is expected to pave a way for other important seascapes in Fiji to go through a similar planning process.

Words by Dwain Qalovaki and Sangeeta Mangubhai and images by Harriet Davis