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

Fiji Symposium a hit in Darwin

Stacy presenting at SCB Oceania

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.

For more information about the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania section, check out their Facebook page and follow them on Twitter @SCBOceania.

Sharing traditional Fijian weaving skills

Mrs Edith Whippy and her beautiful round kuta mat

Edith Whippy is a skilled lady. She is capable of weaving all kinds of mats from kuta (Water chestnut, Eleocharis dulcis), but she loves most of all to make round kuta mats. Usually she collects kuta from Muanicula estate which is just down the road from where she lives. When she travels there by boat to collect the stems and she used to pay F$20 per day, but these now with the high demand for kuta the cost has increased to F$30 a day. Kuta harvesting is a job for all the family – the Whippys set off at 8am to make the trip worthwhile, and spend the day wading in knee-deep water to cut the plants.

At times Edith has to go to Kasavu village to collect kuta, a long journey past Savusavu town, and she is charged F$400 for the return trip which she shares with the other women. The longer you keep dried kuta the better it is, because it softens and becomes easier to use – often it is kept under the mattress to keep the brittle stems soft. Kuta weaving is done only on rainy days or in cooler weather since it tends to break if woven during hot, sunny periods.

Edith’s grandmother taught her the skills of weaving round kuta mats and she has been doing this since 1982 when she married Mr Whippy. Her mats are usually made to order from friends and relatives, providing her main source of income. Round kuta mats are generally charged by hand-span; at around $10 for every hand-span the mats can provide a good alternative livelihood for women. At the same time kuta weaving benefits the environment and local communities: by giving a solid reason to protect the important wetland habitats in which kuta thrives, essential ecosystem services such as clean water will continue to be enjoyed by the nearby villages.

“I conducted training in Natokalau and Dawara villages [in Kubulau and Wailevu districts respectively] last year [2012]. I could see the passion in the ladies to learn the weaving skills quickly, but most of them who came had their small children with them, which made it hard for them to learn as a lot of time was spent attending to the little ones”, said Edith. She is willing to help other women by sharing her special skills and experience from 30 years of weaving round kuta mats, making sure this tradition does not slip away. This will be made possible as part of a WCS Fiji project in Bua and Cakaudrove provinces, which will establish a cooperative selling round kuta mats, therefore giving communities a reason to maintain and manage their precious kuta wetland habitats.

This project is kindly supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), a joint program of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the World Bank.

Surveying the sea cucumbers of Kubulau

Recently I was part of a team of researchers that went to Kubulau to receive sea cucumber survey training, conducted by Mr Kalo of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. The team included nine Fisheries officers from all four corners of Fiji (Western, Central, Northern and Eastern Divisions), as well as three staff from the NGO Partners in Community Development Fund.

Community-managed tabu areas and district MPAs in Kubulau

The team surveyed 57 stations with different methods: manta tows, transects on reef benthos and transects on soft bottom habitats. Each method was carried out both inside community-managed marine protected areas (tabu areas) and in open access areas.

The surveys covered the marine protected areas of Nakali, Namuri, Nasue, Cakau Vusoni and Dromoninuku – the new tabu area established this year, belonging to Navatu village. Open access areas surveyed were the reefs in between Namuri and Nasue marine protected areas, and in front of Waisa village down to Kiobo village, and from Waisa north to Nadivakarua Bay. Unfortunately we were not able to go to the famous Namena MPA due to bad weather.

 

Of the 24 commercially harvested species of sea cucumber present in Fiji, 18 were found in Kubulau during this survey. Previous surveys conducted by WCS Fiji have recorded 14 of these sea cucumber species, so we were happy to add four new species for Kubulau to the records.

Curryfish (Stichopus variegatus) in its shallow water habitat.

There were not many differences between marine protected areas versus open access areas – in some cases there were in fact larger numbers of sea cucumbers recorded outside the protected areas than inside (Holothurius atra, Lollyfish). For the high value species, we recorded only one White teatfish (Holothuria fuscogilva) and few Stonefish (Actinopyga lecanora) during the day. However there were more high value species recorded in Navatu when we visited the buyer. These high value species were caught during the night. Long-handled spears were used to catch bigger ones in the deep, as clearly explained by the local fishermen.

 

It has been mentioned that Crown of Thorns starfish populations might be increasing in Kubulau; we did observe Crown of Thorns during the survey but I personally think that the numbers were much lower than previously recorded by WCS Fiji’s surveys in neighbouring Wailevu district in 2011, where the damage has been more serious.

Actinopyga lecanora, or stonefish – a high value nocturnal species of sea cucumber

Raw data were presented back to the Turaga ni Yavusas (spokesmen for the tribes in the area) during the talanoa session, as requested by the Chairman of the Kubulau Resource Management Committee. These data were also made available to partner organisations as part of a national consultation process on Fiji’s National Sea Cucumber Fishery, together with some community recommendations about sea cucumber harvesting. The export value of sea cucumbers from Fiji is currently estimated at F$22 million annually (~US$12.4 million).

 

 

Women find sustainable, alternative livelihoods in Fiji

Women find sustainable, alternative livelihoods in Fiji

Dried kuta stems ready for weaving in Nabalebale village, Cakaudrove Province, Fiji.

WCS Fiji has just received funding to develop sustainable, alternative sources of livelihood in Bua and Cakaudrove Provinces of Fiji. We were very excited to choose weaving round kuta mats as a central part of this project. Kuta is the water chestnut, Eleocharis dulcis. We feel that there is a need to take up the challenge on kuta weaving since traditional knowledge is slowly slipping away – this would be a significant loss to future generations who are ignorant of the value of this tradition. This project is a chance to revive these skills, preserve this knowledge and retain part of the identity for women from Bua and Cakaudrove who are renowned for their skills in kuta weaving. At the same time the project will create essential opportunities for women to generate additional income within their communities.

Kuta is a sedge, which resembles a tall, cylindrical grass, and inhabits lowlands and marshlands. The ‘chestnuts’ that give this marsh plant its name are not actually nuts, but the swollen underground stems that acts as a storage organ for the plant. In Bua and Cakaudrove, the stems are harvested, dried, and woven into soft sleeping mats, decorative round mats or traditional funeral waist mats (ta’ovala kuta) sold to Tongan people.

Unfortunately, viable habitats that support kuta are now under increasing threat from anthropogenic activities and climate change. The protection of wetlands and marshlands is important to ensure the survival of species like the water chestnut. Establishing kuta weaving cooperatives will give an economic value to these threatened wetland areas which are so important for biodiversity. This economic value will therefore give communities a concrete reason to preserve and manage these areas into the future.

With the help of Partners in Community Development Fiji (PCDF) and WWF one of our staff will be visiting  the districts of Wailevu East and West, Kubulau, Wainunu, Nadi and Solevu to collect information on kuta weaving. PCDF has already conducted training on kuta weaving in early 2011, when they taught some of the ladies in the district of Wailevu and Kubulau to weave round kuta mats. Cross-site visits and to share knowledge will be an important part of the project, since the weaving skills differ across the districts. It may be possible for villages to sell their kuta to weavers in other villages. We expect to have the first sales of kuta mats before the end of the year!

This project is kindly supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), a joint program of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the World Bank.