Returning to Kia Island

WCS staff Sirilo Dulunaqio looks at Kia Island approaching in the distance.

WCS staff Sirilo Dulunaqio looks at Kia Island approaching in the distance.

Spend more than a few minutes on Kia Island and it is obvious that the residents enjoy their fishing. But fishing isn’t just for pleasure, it is a way of life for the communities of Yaro, Ligau and Daku who live on a speck of land no more than 3 square kilometres perched on the edge of Fiji’s Great Sea Reef.

A Kia fisher holds up a sizable catch

A Kia fisher holds up a sizable catch

While the spectacular scenery of the tall rocky cliffs of the island and the warm hospitality of the people of Kia remained the same, much had changed since my last visit in 2009. There was power every night. Sky Pacific satellite dishes crowned the roofs of houses. I no longer needed to walk surreptitiously across the schoolyard to go bathe at the single well with a resident freshwater eel now that large water tanks flanked most of the village houses.

Seagrass and algal beds emergent at low tide on Kia Island

Seagrass and algal beds emergent at low tide on Kia Island

The improvements in lifestyle are probably related to increased fishing income. When I first came to Kia Island in 2008, we saw more fish on the reef than I had ever seen in my life. The values of fish biomass we recorded were nearly off the charts – some of the highest figures that have been published for anywhere in the world. I doubt they are anywhere near the same today.

A few days after we began our surveys, the Kia communities announced that they were opening up their tabu area to fishing. Within four weeks, they had removed nearly 70-80% of the fish biomass, primarily targeting large trevally, unicornfish, grouper, snapper, parrotfish and emperor. Those fish that didn’t get caught, “bailed out” of the tabu area and fled to other adjacent areas of reef, as we noted from a spike in fish numbers and biomass at adjacent survey sites open to fishing.

In 2009, I had the WCS marine team return to Kia Island to look for evidence of recovery as the tabu had supposedly been put back in place. Our results, however, showed a reduction of fish numbers and sizes, suggesting that people were still fishing.

Why? Well, the locals told us that they saw boats from Labasa continuing to fish inside their tabu area – clearly people were not respecting the tabu. We also know that middlemen from seafood export companies moved onto the island, thus there was easy access to a reliable market and hard cash. Hard cash can be used to purchase more fishing gear and boats, thus leading to more fishing pressure.

While the main purpose of our visit this year was to collect some additional social survey information to inform an analysis of the overall effectiveness of management, I also wanted to make sure to present the outcomes of the tabu harvest to the communities.

WCS staff Sirilo Dulunaqio interviewing a fisher from Ligau Village, Kia Island

WCS staff Sirilo Dulunaqio interviewing a fisher from Ligau Village, Kia Island

In Yaro Village in particular, there was a lot of discussion. People were genuinely concerned that the level of fishing might not be sustainable, but they feel a bit powerless to make rules to control effort. The Tui Macuata has the ultimate authority regarding when the tabu area can be opened, thus, to use a banking analogy, there is reluctance to reinstate the tabu for fear that the accrued benefits will be withdrawn by people from outside the community.

The Kia communities are caught in a governance dilemma. What are some of the possible solutions? We counselled them that they could form a fishing committee to be able to take a stronger, unified voice to Bose Vanua meetings to discuss the issues with the traditional community leaders. Because there is such a small area of land available on Kia for planting crops, the communities are nearly completely dependent on fishing for their livelihoods, and outside fishing pressure represent a real threat to their very existence.

Secondly, they can continue the excellent monitoring that they are already doing to assess whether the fish that they are catching are reproductively mature. If too many fish are taken out of the water before they are able to replenish the stock, populations will eventually fall below levels needed to support food and income needs.

Trained fish catch monitors on Kia Island are recording the size and sexual maturity status of each fish caught.

Trained fish catch monitors on Kia Island are recording the size and sexual maturity status of each fish caught.

Kia fishers are regularly assessing whether fish caught are sexually mature by looking at their gonads.

Kia fishers are regularly assessing whether fish caught are sexually mature by looking at their gonads.

Unfortunately, Kians have been hit by a double whammy. In addition to increased fishing pressure, Tropical Cyclone Evan wreaked havoc on their reef. The brilliant colours of the fringing reef bordering the island are gone – likely victim to the cyclone’s thrashing in December 2012, as evidenced by many tipped over coral plates. Instead, it is pipefish paradise as they hide in the turf algae waiting to feed on small unsuspecting invertebrates like copepods. Without a high number of “sasamaki fish” – the fish that eat the algae and clean up the reef – the corals will be unlikely to come back and the reef structure will degrade, thus reducing habitat for other fish and their prey.

One of many pipefish hunting in turf algal habitat on heavily impacted fringing reefs of Kia Island

One of many pipefish hunting in turf algal habitat on heavily impacted fringing reefs of Kia Island

Now is the time to act. We hope to bring back soon the outcomes of our work on periodic harvests of tabu areas to provide better guidelines of how much can be harvested from tabu areas and how often. We are also keen to partner with other NGOs, like WWF, to help the communities come up with a plan to control fishing effort and move towards sustainable extraction levels.

Understanding the role communities play in the sea cucumber fishery

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By Sangeeta Mangubhai

We are currently in Natokalau village, where we will be based for a week doing our value chain analysis surveys in different villages in Kubulau district, in Bua Province. Margaret Fox, Wildlife Conservation Society’s dynamic social scientist, has been leading the surveys with Tevita Vodivodi from the Department of Fisheries and our lively volunteers. Each day they sit down with fishers from different villages and ask them questions that help us understand their role and engagement in this fishery.

Questions vary from when they go fishing for sea cucumbers, how often and with whom, to questions relating to their catch and how much they earn from selling different species of sea cucumbers. We try and find out if they process the sea cucumbers themselves or prefer to sell the live animals to middlemen or exporters directly. Importantly, we ask how much the money they receive from sea cucumbers contributes to their fortnightly or monthly income. This allows us to understand how dependent they are on the resource, and if they have other options available to them, such as agriculture or copra.

Quality of the processing and the final product are important in this fishery and can impact on the income local communities make from their sea cucumbers. Villagers that know how, and how long to cook sea cucumbers without causing their skins to blister and break open get a better price for their product. Those that know how to gut, salt and dry the sea cucumbers get an even higher price, if it is done properly.

What has been interesting to learn is how some villagers operate individually, and others operate collectively. The ones that are operating collectively as a village, strictly controlling tabu areas and the timing of harvests appear to be doing much better. The money they earn gets used to provide facilities (e.g. schools, church) and village projects where everyone benefits. They also have stronger bargaining powers when it comes to selling their product, and more incentive to manage their fishery sustainably.

As Margaret and I reflected on this, she reminded me of an old slogan that was used in Fiji a few years ago that appears to be alive here in Kubulau – “Conservation Begins With Communities.”

Are tabu areas really taboo?

Special to WCS by science writer, Amy West

Conducting underwater fish and coral surveys with Inoke on board. Photo by Amy West

Conducting underwater fish and coral surveys with Inoke on board. Photo by Amy West

Kusima. That’s the Fijian word for an overwhelming desire to eat fish. The last high chief of the district that contains Fiji’s first capital, Levuka, had copious kusima. The fish he ate could only come from his own designated fishing spot called Vadalevu. And before he passed away he asked the district officer, Inoke, to create a marine protected area.

This week we are here to harvest that protected area.

 

 

This protected area, or tabu in Fijian, is located in front of a picturesque village and mountainous backdrop named Nauouo (pronounced Now-wo-wo) just north of Levuka. It’s had no international visitors other than Peace Corps volunteers, who built the big meeting hall thirty-five years ago where we presented sevusevu to Inoke and shared many bowls of kava. On the floor of this building he told that story of what prompted him to set up this tabu. He warmly welcomed our convoy of nearly a dozen people carrying a month’s ration of food, water and gear saying, “We will not get in your way. Do whatever you need.”

We made the daylong journey ferrying over to Ovalau and traveled along dirt roads to conduct WCS’s fourth experimental harvest. WCS asked that the tabu Inoke set up in 2009 be fished after four years of being off-limits to fisherman. Our mission: record the abundance and size of fish that live here before they begin spearfishing and hand lining. After the harvest we survey the sites again to measure the fishing impact. The group will return a year later to survey again and investigate whether fishing surpassed a sustainable level, or if the tabu handled the pressure. Gathering this data gives the village an idea of how much fishing is too much, and if they are properly managing their tabu.

Visiting the outer reef near the tabu.P hoto by Amy West

Visiting the outer reef near the tabu.P hoto by Amy West

Two teams took off diving the next day- one boat with Odei, a local fisherman, and the other with Inoke to sample within the boundary and outside it. After visiting two fishing sites that toed the tabu boundary, we encountered some confusion on its exact location. Though we thought we were inside the protected area, the fisherman, often referencing off an arbitrary point on land, said he fished in this spot. When comparing our original GPS coordinates later with the boundaries that the chief indicated while on the water with us, we noticed the marine protected area had noticeably shrunk. Since the tabus are not typically created using GPS, this problem is common.

 

But the incident took me back to the question the chief first asked us that night, “Is our tabu big enough?”

That’s not easy nor a fast one to answer, but it’s the principle question so many villages want to know. Each tabu has a different fishing history, habitats, and pressures. It’s impossible to gather data on all of these tabus, but those that WCS assess help build a management plan to predict what can work for these locally managed areas.

Thus far our surveys closest to Nauouo’s shore (where most fishing occurs) were largely fishless- particularly the large ones. In fact, the WCS Fiji program director, Stacy Jupiter, remarked that goatfish appeared smaller than the normally tiny damselfish.

The village of Nauouou. Photo by Amy West

The village of Nauouou. Photo by Amy West

When we traveled a few kilometers along the shore outside of the tabu, however, fish were still small but numerous.  Had the tabu been fished previously to the extent that it didn’t recover? Were the boundaries too nebulous or were poachers at fault? Either way fish life in the reserve did not seem to be thriving.

Tabu regions are not new per se. Historically some villages would cease fishing to honor particular deceased relatives or wait to harvest an area for a function. Motives didn’t necessarily include long-term conservation or guaranteed food fish for the future. Establishing more formal tabu began fifteen years ago- with 415 created to date. However, a longstanding off-limits “reserve” is atypical for this culture. With market access reaching even the remote regions, WCS wants to see these protected regions, succeed. In a supportive village like Nauouo, so do the residents.

Diving with underwater video to capture the fish abundance. Photo by Amy West

Diving with underwater video to capture the fish abundance. Photo by Amy West

Threats to the success include poachers, lack of enforcement, and unawareness of fish biology and benefits of a truly no-take zone. Therefore, another WCS team is on the ground here, traveling from village to village to ask each household critical questions such as why open a tabu, what size indicates a mature fish, and what perceived benefits come from a tabu?

The harvest should bring in enough fish for a big provincial meeting occurring right after the fishing ends. But an ensuing question remains: will there be enough for the next function?

Amy West has traveled worldwide as a marine scientist, specializing in fisheries and deep-sea ecology. Now as a science communicator she brings stories about ocean realms to the public through radio, video, photography, and writing. She’s usually diving into adventurous stories that take her on or below the water.

Yavirau! Koro style

Although as the petrel flies, Koro Island is not geographically far from the capital, it is not easy to get there. Didi and Wise on our team beat down giant swells and high winds to bring our boats on the 65 km crossing from Savusavu. Meanwhile, the rest of us took the Lomaiviti Princess from Suva, which dropped anchor at the Koro jetty sometime in the middle of the night. We were bleary-eyed and confused as we hopped on a carrier that disgorged us an hour up the road and onto the floors of two families’ houses to try to squeeze in some last minutes of shut-eye as the roosters cackled and the sun slowly crept over the horizon.

Yavirau! Koro StylePeople from Tuatua village believe that this area (including the villages of Nasau and Nacimake) was the place of original settlement on Koro Island, as people fled from some natural disaster, possibly a tsunami, on Motoriki located south of Ovalau. We shared many of these stories after our formal presentation of a tabua (sperm whale’s tooth) to signify our serious intentions for our upcoming fieldwork.

WCS is continuing our investigation to uncover the impacts of opening tabu (locally managed fisheries closures). We recognize that it is highly unlikely that coastal communities in Fiji will keep portions of their traditionally managed fisheries closures permanently closed to fishing. But we have also observed that there are increasing pressures to turn to tabu areas for quick income when money is needed to pay provincial levies, school fees, church fees or buy communal goods for the village. We are trying to assess how much can safely be extracted from a tabu area, given its size and history, without fully compromising its ability to provide fish and invertebrates for the future.

The people of Koro have graciously welcomed us to help them better manage their island and coastal fisheries. Our plan is to conduct a short harvest in Tuatua village, followed by a longer, more intensive harvest in Nakodu village.

Tuatua is where the Tui Koro (high chief of Koro resides), but Tuatua itself was without a village chief when we arrived. The Native Land and Fisheries Commission visited during our stay with the VKB, a registry of all iTaukei (indigenous Fijians) to trace the lineages and identify the next successor to be installed. Perhaps it was due to this gap in leadership that the Tuatua tabu had been consistently opened every quarter over the past year, with even an extra opening for a recent church function. Or perhaps it was because the local managers had not received any recent advice of the consequences of too frequent harvests. Whatever the reason, the impacts were obvious. Compared with the adjacent areas open to fishing, the Tuatua tabu appeared fairly devoid of fish life.

This observation was backed up during the yavirau (fish drive). Four times, women and men from the village spread out their gill net in a semi-circle in the tabu lagoon during low tide. At the call of “Yavi!” people swam towards the net, driving the terrified fish toward their ultimate capture. Gills nets are highly non-selective – any unlucky fish caught within the vicinity of the net could potentially be caught if it does not divert its trajectory.  But after 3 hours of the drive, the total haul was only 191 fish, with very few larger than 30 cm

By contrast, our first dives in the Nakodu tabu area showed much higher densities of fish that were highly unwary of us invading humans. One little grouper (Epinephelus merra) was so tame that I caught it with my bare hand! On the second day of the yavirau, the community brought in over 1500 fish from just 3 hours of effort. The weight of the haul was so large that it almost capsized the Adi Lase Bula, one of our boats. It was then a long, tiring afternoon for our team of Margy, Wise, Yashika, Akuila, Didi and Jordan, a PhD student from University of Western Australia working with us, to measure and identify all the fish.

What was the difference between the two villages’ tabu? Nakodu village has kept its tabu closed since its establishment in 2010, despite calls from family in Suva and overseas to open for Christmas feasts. Furthermore, the community had their own motivations for a harvest with an upcoming Methodist Church function for which they needed to gather enough food to feed all participants. The people of Nakodu were ecstatic with the results. They could see for themselves that their patience had paid off for an occasion where they really needed the extra food.

But questions remain. Did they take too much? How long will it take for the tabu to recover and when can they harvest again? Over the next few months, we will be busy analyzing our data to help provide some answers with the hope that we can provide better recommendations about the duration that tabu areas need to stay closed in order to provide an adequate amount of short-term gains without compromising long-term food security. Stay tuned for more answers. Moce mada.

This work is kindly supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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