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.

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