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Recently, I had the privilege of accepting an Early Career Conservationist award from the Society for Conservation Biology at their biennial congress held this year in Montpellier, France. In preparing for my acceptance speech, I spent some time reflecting back on how I came to be working for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Fiji on ridge to reef management issues.
One might say that I had some fairly inauspicious beginnings as a conservationist. When I was twelve year old, I asked my parents if I could paint a rainforest meets reef mural on my bedroom wall. They surprisingly said yes, not wanting to stifle my burgeoning artistic talent.
But this is where I made my first blunder as a conservationist. Growing up near Boston, I hadn’t really visited any rainforests or reefs, and in these pre-internet days, I drew inspiration for our trusty World Book Encyclopaedia for images of different tropical birds and reef fish. What I ended up with was an ecologist’s nightmare with scarlet macaws from the Amazon, sulphur crested cockatoos from Australia, and toucan from the Neotropics living in my forest, while my reef was inhabited with Caribbean and Indo-Pacific species cavorting together.
My second real conservation blunder came when I joined the U.S. Peace Corps and was assigned to be a rural fisheries extension officer in Gabon, Central Africa, where I spent two and half year teaching rural farmers how to raise non-native tilapia. What I learned about these fish was what makes them such successful aquaculture species also makes them very successful invaders in other systems.
This really hit home when I moved to Fiji when I started working for WCS in 2008, first as an Associate Conservation Scientist and then as the Fiji Program Director in 2009. The first paper that I published using Fiji data showed 2 factors strongly associated with lower species richness and abundance of native freshwater fish species: loss of forest cover and presence of non-native tilapia.
After WCS put out a press release on the findings, the trouble really started. Who would have thought that these fish that I raised myself would nearly get me kicked out of the country? A Fiji journalist somehow misquoted me saying that I called tilapia “aquatic cockroaches” and the Fiji Government threatened to revoke my work permit because “tilapia are here to stay”.
A big lesson that we learned from this experience is that correlation does not equal causation. The lead author Aaron Jenkins and I had to make abundantly clear in an editorial to the Fiji Times that we were not implying that tilapia were killing native fish, merely that their presence is associated with the decline. Moreover, we agreed that tilapia can be a very good aquaculture fish where it has already established. We were only suggesting keeping it out of near pristine systems where it had not yet invaded. After much kava drinking with Fisheries Department staff, we were allowed to stay in Fiji, much to my great relief.
But fortunately, my time in Peace Corps in Gabon taught me how to deal with adversity and unexpected challenges. We actually used the results from this study as one of the cornerstones in communicating with local communities why it is important to manage ridge to reef systems holistically. At meetings in rural villages to discuss the rationale for integrated management, I actually saw grown men and women well up in tears when they realized that the forestry and farming practices they were involved with were potentially affecting the very food and water that they need for their families’ survival.
Over the past seven years, I have spent several months a year living and working in remote villages in Fiji to help local communities to design integrated management plans and better understand the effectiveness of their management actions. This has really been the most rewarding part about my job. I fell in love with working with local communities while living in Gabon, and it has been amazing to me what local people can accomplish with a vision and dedication to conservation and management.
As such, while it was a great honour to be recognized by the Society for Conservation Biology for my work in Oceania, in truth I have mostly just been a conduit for delivering information to local communities and governments faced with tough decisions about managing a myriad of threats affecting their biodiversity and livelihoods. It has been a privilege to interact with these decision makers in Fiji and across the Pacific who are the true champions of biodiversity and stewards of the Earth’s resources.
Ecosystems are linked, so what happens in one place can have an impact elsewhere. For example, the health and resilience of coral reef ecosystems may be affected by the clearing and burning of forest in coastal catchments. To promote an integrated approach to the management of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems, WCS is facilitating a collaborative planning process with communities in districts across the province of Bua.
Each village in Vuya and Dama has nominated 3 or 4 representatives (including a young person and a women’s rep) to take part in district management planning workshops. Their role is to raise awareness in the village and facilitate the input of local people in order to build the understanding, consensus and support required for community-led management. As well as identifying strategies for their management plan, workshops in October included communication and facilitation training to help them fulfill their role.
Seaweb, experts in the use of communications science for community-led conservation, introduced key theories and tools for participants to distill and convey fundamental messages to different target audiences. We explored how villagers process, retain and apply new concepts and how communication can appeal to the heart as well as the head to affect motivations and realize change. Participants were highly engaged and there was plenty of constructive feedback as they demonstrated how they would feedback to different groups. The consensus was that oral and visual messages are more effective than written information and that the status of the person delivering a message can be as important as the message itself.
It was great to see teamwork developing among village representatives as they identified who would deliver messages to different groups. I was even more encouraged to see different villages discussing structural barriers to communication, such as the lack of representation at village meetings or dysfunctional village sub-committees. Some went beyond encouragement and advice to offer practical support, with representatives from two villages discussing tactics for using traditional ties to influence key decision makers.
Village representatives connect top-down and bottom-up processes for effective ecosystem-based management, providing the vital link between district-level planning and village-level implementation. Working with Seaweb, we will continue to focus on understanding and enhancing local communication networks for better outcomes in Bua. With my appetite whetted, watch this space for upcoming research into social networks and communication as well as rolling out communications training through district representatives on the Bua Yaubula Management Support Team.
I’m having flashbacks. Two years ago on this very day, I was sitting on board a similar-sized yacht, anchored in the lagoon of Totoya Island in the Yasayasamoala Group of the Lau Islands. In June 2011, I was part of an expedition team from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Pacific Blue Foundation, Waitt Institute, Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Wetlands International-Oceania to survey Totoya’s Sacred Reef.[Editor’s note: See blog from the 2011 expedition at: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2011/06/08/expedition-to-the-sacred-reef-of-fiji-6/]
In honour of World Ocean’s Day, Roko Josefa Cinavilakeba, the high chief of the Yasayasamoala group, redeclared Totoya’s Daveta Tabu protected. In was indeed a great day for the communities of Totoya and those here to participate in the experience.
But time flies fast and furious in the Pacific. Flash forward two years and I’m back to Totoya again, this time on board the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation’s research vessel, the Golden Shadow. In 2008, I wrote a letter to the Foundation, inviting them to come to Fiji as part of their Global Expedition (http://www.sciencewithoutborders.org/science-without-borders/) to investigate the major threats and impacts to coral reefs around the world, with a view to providing data to help innovate new management solutions. It only took them five years to respond – and now, here we are, floating in the remote waters of Fiji’s Lau Province.
The Living Oceans Foundation brings a wealth of experience, knowledge and scientific tools to study coral reef systems, including the ability to map large sections of reefs which provides important information on natural resource inventories for management. When I approached other organizations in Fiji about where the Living Oceans Foundation should focus these efforts, almost unanimously people said Lau. The remoteness and limited options for transport to Lau makes it an unusually challenging place to conduct repeated surveys to assess changes in reef resources – unless you have access to a superyacht, that is.And thanks to Prince Khaled bin Sultan of the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia, we do.
I’ve suggested to the research team to resurvey locations on Totoya, Matuku and Kabara that were previously surveyed in the 1990s and 2000s by researchers from the University of Newcastle in England, as well as the sites that we surveyed inside and adjacent to Totoya Sacred Reef in 2011.
In the meantime, myself, Ron Vave of the University of the South Pacific, and Willie Saladrau of the Fiji Department of Fisheries are searching far and wide to assess the status of sea cucumbers in this region, which are being increasingly exploited for cash income by local communities. Sea cucumbers are easy targets – with limited mobility, they can’t get away from a keen freediver. And the perception is that they are just money sitting on the reef. In reality, sea cucumbers have an important ecosystem function to regulate the amount of nutrients in coral reef sediments, which likely keeps algal blooms under control (as I described in my blog on our surveys of Western Bua: http://wcsfiji.org.fj/coral-reef-resilience-surveys-in-western-bua/). So far, Willie, Ron and I have not had much luck finding the critters – but we are hopeful that some are still out there to sustain the livelihoods of the local communities.
Duty calls – time to get back in the water and then on to a meke session in Tovu village.
WCS Fiji recently ran a symposium entitled “Integrating Systematic Conservation Planning with Local Management Actions in Fiji” at the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania section meeting in Darwin, Australia, that ran from September 21 to 23. The mission of the Society of Conservation Biology is to advance the science and practice of conserving the Earth’s biological diversity. The Oceania section includes Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, Australia and New Zealand, and aims to have section meetings in the region every 2 years, with the next one scheduled for Fiji in July 2014!!
The symposium kicked off with an overview of the rather ad hoc evolution of Fiji’s current system of protected areas by WCS Fiji Director Stacy Jupiter. This was followed by two excellent case studies of community-based adaptive management of marine protected area (MPA) networks in Fiji. Rebecca Weeks, formerly of WCS Fiji and currently of James Cook University, showcased the efforts of Kubulau District communities to expand their MPA network and James Comley of the University of the South Pacific’s Institute of Applied Science, highlighted work by USP Masters student Hans Karl Wendt on adaptive reconfiguration of MPAs across all of Kadavu Province. Kasaqa Tora of the National Trust of Fiji then gave an in-depth view of Fiji’s terrestrial gap analysis results and how the national Protected Area Committee has prioritized new areas for conservation that will hopefully be funded under Fiji’s GEF-PAS allocation.
Two further research projects were presented by our collaborators Vanessa Adams, of James Cook University and Charles Darwin University, and Azusa Makino of the University of Queensland. They focused on ways to integrate socioeconomic costs and considerations of land-sea connectivity into systematic conservation plans for Fiji.
We received excellent feedback from all of the presentations, including an offer from an editor of Pacific Conservation Biology to submit a paper to the journal on the intricacies of protected area planning and implementation in Fiji. Our work in Fiji shared many parallels with ongoing efforts to expand conservation and management in indigenous areas of the Northern Territory in Australia, as well as Papua New Guinea and other Pacific island nations.
Dancers hit the streets of Fiji last week, as Suva’s Hibiscus Festival saw Fiji’s largest ever Flash Mob! The mass boogie to the Bee Gees – “Stayin’ Alive” of course – was organised to draw attention to the plight of groupers – an easy and valuable target for fishermen when the fish meet to spawn in large aggregations in Fiji waters.
Watch the video of the dancers in action below! And yes, that is our Director Dr Stacy Jupiter in the front row…
The Flash Mob follows the launch of the National Spawning Aggregations Campaign, a partnership between WCS Fiji, SeaWeb, the Department of Fisheries and other organisations in the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Areas (FLMMA) Network. The ultimate goal of the campaign is to ensure that the fishery can continue to support communities and commerce in Fiji for the long-term. You can find out more in this Fiji Times article: http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=210447.
This project was kindly supported with a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.