Totoya times two

20130604_Totoya_SJupiter_06a_sm 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.

Moce mada.

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Notes from the field: periodic harvests

I thought I’d be tweeting and blogging away from the field – but alas, since Digicel installed a tower in Kubulau, Vodafone signal is but a figment of my imagination. So I am cut off from all forms of communication with the outside world – six days in, it feels like a weight has been lifted.

After 18 long months of slogging it in the office and pitching proposals non-stop to donors, we are finally back in the field for a new project. During the past few years we have been collecting information about the reefs to provide recommendations about where to set up no-fishing zones (or marine protected areas – MPAs) and monitoring their effectiveness over time. This trip is different – we have asked the village of Kiobo in Kubulau District to open their MPA to see what happens. “What!” the purists would yell, “Open an MPA? Are you crazy?” But the simple fact is that rural communities in Fiji routinely open their MPAs to provide food for social functions. This practice comes from a cultural legacy throughout Melanesia of creating short-term, no-fishing zones specifically so that they would be able to have a great harvest for a social event and redistribute the food as a show of wealth and status. Thus, even though most communities within the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area network say that they want to have fish for the future, they also very much want to have fish for the present.

More and more frequently, there are expectations that the MPAs can provide a source of income whenever the community needs money to pay school fees, church fees, provincial levies, etc. This is leading to more intense and more frequent harvests from MPAs, and the fish just don’t stand a chance. Here is where we come in – our current project is evaluating how much you can extract from an MPA and still have sustainable fisheries for the future. We recognise that the MPAs in Fiji work best where cultural practice is strong – and if cultural practice demands occasionally opening an MPA, then we need to be able to offer some better guidelines about how much can be harvested besides just “don’t take all the biggest fish.”

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In the field with us this time is Jordan Goetze, a PhD student from University of Western Australia, whom I’ve recruited to look at the ecological impacts of harvesting MPAs for his doctoral research. On this trip, he is testing out a range of survey methods to see which ones best document the impact of a week-long harvest from the Kiobo MPA. Our WCS staff are collecting our standard underwater visual census data, which he will compare with before and after harvest surveys of the reefs using diver-operated video and baited remote underwater video surveys (BRUVs). The diver-operated video information is certainly more efficient to collect than our laborious fish and benthic counts, while the BRUVs potentially allow us to collect a better record of predatory fish that are often skiddish of SCUBA divers. At the same time, we have sent out WCS staff and a Masters student from the University of the South Pacific to conduct household interviews to find out what the local people are expecting from the harvest in terms of food and monetary benefits, and then we will resurvey them after the event to see how these expectations were met.

Conducting fieldwork in remote Fiji is always challenging. Today we are stuck in the village as the fuel hose for our dive compressor became shredded, thus preventing us from filling our dive tanks. Waisea and Akuila have gone to Savusavu in search of a replacement. The winds have been up, causing rather treacherous conditions mooring at sites. Under pressure to complete 4 dives a day, we often find ourselves returning to the village for a low tide swap of empty for full tanks, which must be lugged across hundreds of meters of intertidal seagrass and algal beds. And there is no rest for the weary in the evening – data must be entered, kava drunk, and special efforts made to conduct awareness presentations in the surrounding villages so they understand what they stand to gain from the information collected from these surveys. Full support of the local communities is crucial for this project to succeed, so it is worth the extra effort to haul our generator, projector and white sheet around to the various villages by boat, often in the dark, for evening presentations to ensure that everyone knows what is happening.

What will we find when the MPA is opened? Unfortunately, it looks as though the local reports of emboldened poachers encroaching on inshore fishing grounds may be true. We certainly did not see overly abundant fish life in the MPA, and invertebrates were few and far between. Yet, hopefully the men and women of Kiobo village will still be able to pull in a sizeable catch, which can provide them a modicum of income while allowing us to gather a piece of the puzzle to evaluate thresholds of impact. Keep your coconut wireless tuned for the results . . . moce mada. Stacy

Groupers spawning in Fiji’s paradise

Groupers spawning in Fiji’s paradise

The grouper monitoring program in Kadavu was started by Dr. Yvonne Sadovy and Rick Nemeth from the Society for the Conservation of Reef Fish Aggregations in 2008. Dr. Sadovy assembled an international team consisting of local fisheries officers and local and international scientists to monitor the number and type of groupers in the area.

The area is used by several groupers and many other species for spawning so it was established as a marine protected area (no-take zone) managed by the local village. The main grouper that spawn at the site and are being monitored include the Camouflage grouper (Epinephelus polyphekadion), Brown marble grouper (E. fuscoguttatus), Squaretail coralgrouper (Plectropomus areolatus) and Black saddle grouper (P. laevis).

The study team consisted of me, Brad Erisman a professor of Marine Biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, USA and Rick Nemeth from the Conservation of Reef Fish Aggregation in the Virgin Islands. Our research was supported by Siwa, the dive master, and Tulala the boat captain. We dove three times per day for six straight days, and we saw a lot of groupers. On the first day of diving, Brad and I saw approximately 50-60 Brown marble grouper and a few small groups of Camouflage grouper and Black saddle grouper. Rick didn’t arrive until the next day, because he was delayed because of a hurricane that was passing by his home in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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For the rest of the week, we did not see many Camouflage grouper or Brown marble grouper, which suggested that these fish were not spawning at the time of our visit. For the Camouflage grouper, we suspect they have spawned already, whereas the Brown marble grouper may have spawned just before we arrived (before the full moon). However, with each passing day, we observed more and more Black saddle grouper. Many of these fish were really large – more than 90-100 cm in length and weighing more than 10 kg. The largest ones took on a brilliant coloration with dark gray on their head, front and back of their bodies but with a large white stripe down the middle, a bright white belly and lips. After three years of working at this site, this year seems to have the highest count of Black saddle grouper. These fish would swim by other groupers, turning their bodies to the side and shaking their head violently back and forth. While we are not sure exactly why these fish were behaving this way, in other groupers this behavior occurs in aggressive behavior between males as well by males attempting court and spawn with a female. By the end of the trip, we estimated that there were as many as 135 Black saddle grouper in our survey area.

In 2010, Rick Nemeth had placed three acoustic receivers on the reef to record the presence of any tagged camouflage grouper as they move in and out of the area to spawn. The portion of the project related to the receivers was set to finish this year, so we decided to retrieve all the receivers this week as well.

Overall, the trip was a great success. The entire staff at the resort was wonderful, generous, and helpful to us throughout our trip. We were invited by the chief and the staff to take part in a kava ceremony, where we learned a lot more about the local communities and their resources. Of course, we also accomplished all our research goals for the trip. Hopefully, if we are lucky, next year when we return we’ll get to see the spawning of the Black saddle grouper.

Debate on shark feeding in Fiji

A grey reef shark is an impressive sight in Fiji's waters

Shark dive tourism is a lucrative and booming global market. Feeding to attract sharks to divers has generated significant concerns, with many criticisms focusing on the potential for ecological and behavioral impacts. A lecture by Mike Neumann, an established dive operator practicing shark feeding at Shark Reef Marine Reserve on Fiji’s Coral Coast, informed lively discussion this week.

Mike highlighted recent research from the University of Miami (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iFl7BxbnXQ) showing that sharks from Barbados (where shark feeding is common) maintain similar territories and long-distance feeding forays as sharks in Florida, where there is no shark feeding.

Visitors attracted to see the big sharks are making a significant contribution to the local economy on and help communities ‘monitise’ the benefits of Marine Protected Areas. Mike’s business also raises awareness of the habitat degradation and unsustainable fishing (mainly due to the high value of shark fins) that contribute to a rapidly decreasing shark population in the Pacific.

Given the research findings, Mike and others believe that that shark diving tourism should be accepted as a part of the conservation landscape in Fiji and put the onus on those who disagree to provide evidence demonstrating otherwise.

Disco diving in Fiji

Check out images of a day-glo reef in another blog post from WCS Fiji Director Stacy Jupiter on the Joint Aquarium trip through the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape: http://explorers.neaq.org/2012/03/fiji-disco-diving.html