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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Coral reef resilience surveys in Western Bua

After only 2 weeks respite from our periodic harvest surveys in Kubulau, the Fiji  marine team has again packed up our kit and by planes, boats and automobiles made our way to the remote regions of western Bua Province. Given our success assisting the districts of Kubulau and Wainunu to develop and implement their ecosystem-based management plans, the Bua Provincial Office requested for WCS to replicate the model with the remaining districts in the  province. So we’re here to use our well-honed survey methodology to gain baseline data that will allow us to develop recommendations for marine protected area (MPA) network design. We’ll present the recommendations back to the communities during the first half of 2013 to ideally help local communities achieve their fisheries and livelihoods goals.
Marine Crew on the Adi Lase Bula

Our first destination was Navunievu village in Bua District. Natalie and I, as early arrivals, spent the afternoon drinking kava waiting for the others to arrive. The ladies on our team were assigned sleeping quarters on the floor in the village hall, which meant we were  constantly the centre of attention for eager children curious to check out photo slideshows and chatty ladies wanting to constantly peer at what we were doing. This made working, changing and sleeping challenging to say the least, and we jealously coveted the boys’ beds and privacy in their separate houses.

Our second challenge was the weather.  “E tau na uca veisiga i ke? (Does it rain everyday here?)” I asked just about anyone who would listen. They generally would just smile. Perhaps my Fijian accent is terrible or it is just a silly question—because, yes, of course it rains every day in Navunievu. This put a slight damper on our fieldwork when lunches of tinned tuna turned to tuna soup, and visibility at certain sites, particularly near the mangroves, turned to pea soup. However, despite the poor vis, we were pleased to note that the Bua District tabu (MPA), established nearly a year ago, was working well, with plenty of large food fish.

As if on cue, it began to pour as we departed Navunievu at the end of our first week, but the skies soon cleared and a rainbow halo rimmed the peaks of Yadua Island, our next destination. The smaller island adjacent to Yadua, Yadua Taba, is famous in Fiji as the home to Fiji’s endemic crested iguanas. The National Trust of Fiji has worked with the communities to establish a wildlife sanctuary on Yadua Taba for the approximately 20,000 iguanas living in one of the few remaining intact dry forests in Fiji. It is believed that the first iguanas rafted here across the Pacific from South America. Given that Yadua Taba is home to 90-95% of the crested iguanas in Fiji, the  species is highly vulnerable to threats from invasive alien species, such as rats, as well as habitat damage and climate change. Twenty thousand iguanas is quite a lot for a 70 ha island, so it didn’t take us long to spot them hanging out in the trees, munching on hibiscus leaves. Some were willing photo subjects—others were more feisty. I had two Jurassic Park moments when the lens of my camera was attacked  by some not-so-amused reptiles.

The community of Yadua village has also established a permanent, no-take tabu area on the reefs and other coastal habitats around Yadua Taba. However, our first impressions are that it may be subject to heavy poaching, given how quickly the fish flee from approaching divers. Unfortunately, these days in Fiji, given the weak legislation to support community-managed MPAs and lack of capacity for enforcement, once a tabu becomes well-known, it is like having a giant flashing beacon saying “FISH HERE!” It is no help that the latest draft of the Inshore Fisheries Decree has been put on hold indefinitely. I’m trying to stay positive that we can still empower the communities and provincial governments to work within the existing system and restrict fishing licenses.

The sea cucumber (or beche-de-mer) fishery requires the most urgent regulation. In general, Fijians do not eat most beche-de-mer. They are sold to middlemen for export to Hong Kong and on to the Chinese market. As single white teat may fetch over FJ$100, the perception is that they are just easy cash for the taking sitting on the reef. However, there are three big reasons why people should pay attention to the serial exploitation of species and regulate the fishery. First, sea cucumbers are the sweepers of the sea. They play important roles in nutrient cycling, which keeps algal blooms at bay. Secondly, with exemptions from the Fiji Department of Fisheries to collect beche-de-mer on SCUBA but improper training, divers are literally killing themselves by pushing depth limits to find valuable species as they become more and more rare. Lastly, the middlemen are taking most of the profits. If the communities were able to have more control, they could keep more of the benefits for themselves and control extraction rates so that they might always be able to “cash out” a haul in times of real need.

As it stands now in Yadua, there is a Korean middleman who has been operating from the next bay for over 20 years with the permission of the high chief of the area, who  does not live on the island. The community is unhappy, and the chief of Yadua has encouraged the young men to collect as many beche-de-mer as they can, thus forming a race to catch the last individuals. Currently the wealth is evident in the community, with generators, compressors, televisions and other appliances that we do not usually see in rural villages. However, I can only imagine the impending social issues that might be faced once the cash flow dries up when beche-de-mer populations collapse.

Another critical challenge facing Yadua is potential impacts of extreme weather from climate change. Water security is a serious issue on the island. Recently, a borehole was located to supply the village with water for drinking and cleaning, but it requires a diesel-powered generator to operate the pump. Just the other day, the community ran out of fuel for the generator, and the thought was to catch some of the wild goats on the island to sell for purchase of more fuel. They did indeed catch the goats, but with heavy winds, they were unable to take them across to Vanua Levu and no fuel could be bought. Meanwhile, the water levels continued to drop in the barrels and buckets.

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For our third week in the field, we moved over to Yaqaga Island in Lekutu District, also home to iguanas and, much to our pleasure, running water and flush toilets! The men of Yaqaga are also busy collecting beche-de-mer, which they sell to another middleman based in Galoa village. They have already seen declines in numbers on the surrounding reefs and are fishing less valuable species, like snakefish. Meanwhile, untrained divers are putting their lives at risk plunging to depths of over 80 m to find the remaining individuals. One diver, who recently suffered the bends, is now relegated to growing watermelons on the far side of the island. Unlike in Yadua, the people of Yaqaga and Galoa asked questions about what might be the impact of wholesale removal of beche-de-mer and what could be alternative sources of income for their children.

 

These communities also have another source of concern. Several years ago, the Fiji Government granted permission to a Chinese mining company to extract bauxite, used to make aluminium cans. The Chinese company was smart— in order to get their foot in the door in Fiji, they chose a small (<30 ha) site in pine plantation of limited conservation value and developed plans to export the ore back to China for the more ‘dirty’ processing steps. However, in the future, ore from other, larger claims may be processed in Fiji. In the meantime, communities say that they are  already feeling the impact of increased runoff of sediments from the Nawailevu mine and jetty. They say it has become harder to find Anadara clams (‘kaikoso’) and the waters have become increasingly silty.

Clearly there is much work to be done in this region and we are eager to help the communities both sensibly engage with the natural resource extraction industries, as well as develop management plans to balance their own needs for income generation with sustainable livelihoods. Stay tuned.

 

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

Adapting to climate change: learning from our neighbours in Vanuatu

Recently I was lucky enough to attend a training course in methods of community adaptation to climate change, run by the Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development (PACE-SD). My 2 week trip to Vanuatu for this training was inspiring and taught me a lot of things about climate change. It’s amazing what we learned from one of the presenters, Dr Chris Bartlett from SPC-GTZ, about the wide range of different effects of climate change. After a week of classroom learning, we had a week in the field to visit community-based climate change adaptation projects and learn from them.

I was happy to see first-hand how they have setup a pilot project on the island of Pele which accommodates 4 villages (Piliura, Warasiviu, Launamoa and Worearu). The communities take full ownership of the project to make good use of the resources around them. For example, each village has their own MPA, the school has 2 composting toilets, Piliura village has a solar drying food compartment, and they even have a nursery in which they use Crown of Thorns starfish as manure! First they first collect the starfish, then ‘weather’ them to remove salt (either by burying or leaving exposed). Once properly dried the starfish are ground up and put in a composter, mixed with leaves, soil or organic matter and left to compost for 3-6 months with regular aeration and mixing. The village of Launamoa have a piggery, where cross breed the wild pigs and the normal ones and feed them with coconut and other food scraps. Pig waste is then collected and mixed with leaves or other organic matter to be used as manure for their sweet potato and vegetable gardens. I am quite sure that this can also be used in some communities we work in Fiji, with minimum help from government.

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As well as the excellent training, the 2 week trip was a chance to go back to my birthplace for the first time. The French influence was still very clear; I was surprised to see in most supermarkets how much food is imported and I wonder how do they offset these costs? However, the food was delicious especially the nice juicy steak!

Sea cucumber harvest provides church roof

Holothuria scabra collected in Natuvu village

On the 24th September 2012 the communities of Natuvu village in Wailevu district started harvesting sea cucumbers (Holothuria scabra, or dairo in Fijian) from the shallow waters outside their marine protected area. Sea cucumbers are being cultured in Natuvu village through a joint project with Fiji Department of Fisheries, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, and James Cook University. The dried animals fetch a high price for sale in Asian markets – up to $100 per kilo. Around 1,200 of the valuable animals were collected on the first day of the harvest and 1,000 individuals on the second day. We are waiting to hear the final catch figures for the harvest from the communities.

During the harvest I saw first-hand the long drying process to prepare the catch for sale. First the communities cooked the dairo then buried them in sand for 24 hours. After this, they cleaned them and cooked again for 10 minutes and then dried the cooked animals using dryers. Finally, the sea cucumbers are cooked again for 15-20 minutes and then sun dried until they are sold.

It was very encouraging to see the community come together as the women of the village cleaned the dairo while all the men helped out in the cooking, cleaning and drying. Harvesting will continue until enough money is collected from selling sea cucumbers to purchase new roofing material for their village church.

Catch information collected from this harvest will contribute to a study by the University of Georgia in the US. In August, WCS Fiji staff assisted Professor Mark Hay and his team to carry out surveys inside and outside the marine protected area owned by Natuvu village, for example gathering seabed sediment samples and assessing the density of sea cucumbers before the planned harvest. These data are now being analysed by Professor Hay, before he returns to Natuvu for a post-harvest survey. The research hopes to answer questions about the effects of large-scale harvests of sea cucumbers on ecosystem functions such as nutrient cycling.