Cetacean spotting in Vatu-i-ra Seascape

Watching cetaceans play in waters of Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra Seascape was a lovely experience. The whales and dolphins love to entertain while they guide travelers during bad weather, according to the village elders. Their performances are so varied; they breach, spin, spy-hop (when dolphins pop their heads above the surface and look around), flap their tail or flippers – all part of their communication system, but an amazing display of behaviour for us. They also make different noises underwater, sometimes to attract mates or just talk to each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was part of the 2012 WCS Fiji Cetacean Hotspot Survey (1st to 11th August), together with Margy and Waisea, community representatives, and Dr Cara Miller from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) as the cetacean expert to guide us. We were hosted in the beautiful village of Nasau in Ra Province, northeastern Viti Levu, where we were welcomed with lot of excitement.

On Day 1 of the survey we were rewarded with a sighting of a humpback whale as soon as we reached Vatu-i-Ra Island – a tiny speck in the waters of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape, over 20 km from the nearest land. We started by testing two different methods for recording sightings: boat transects and land-based sightings from a vantage point with a 360° view of the open ocean. Later the land-based team joined the boat team due to bad weather preventing clear sightings from land. Day 2 was a day without any sightings, although we did manage to record some faint whale songs. I was getting anxious, hoping I would catch some close-up glimpses of the whales and dolphins recorded in previous years. Things improved on Day 3 as we spotted a pod of Bottlenose dolphin adults with calves – they were cute, fat, and fast swimmers. Much to our delight, one of the calves was spy-hoping while our cameras snapped. The same day we encountered a pod of Shortfin pilot whales scattered over a larger area, with one of the group coming to check us out – you can see a short clip of his visit below!

We had evening events every night where Waisea explained the day’s happenings to the villagers and we showed them videos, pictures and songs. All songs were recorded using a hydrophone provided by WDCS, so that the songs could be analysed later and compared cetacean songs from other regions. Some of the songs we recorded on Day 4 sounded like whale and dolphin rap, where the whales would sing first and the dolphins would respond to it! The adventure continued with plenty of whales and dolphins sighted on the 4th day – Spinner dolphins, Shortfin pilot whales and Humpback whales were all there, swimming happily in the water. After a break on Sunday, we were welcomed on Monday with deteriorating weather which restricted us to land-based survey for a few days. Finally we managed to complete our last few boat transects, with a few more sightings and songs recorded.

I returned very happy because we saw so many different cetaceans, and recorded songs almost every day – it was an adventurous trip!

WCS Fiji gratefully acknowledge funding from The Marisla Foundation to carry out this work.

More eggs, more fish!

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.

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).

 

 

Enigmatic dolphins & whales from the Bay of Bengal

Staff from WCS Fiji joined their WCS Bangladesh counterparts in conducting research on dolphins and whales found in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh. For WCS Fiji Field Officers, Margaret Fox and Waisea Naisilisili, this research was part of their training on how to conduct whale and dolphin surveys, with their new skills to be put into practice in Fiji.

It was the first time in this region for the two Fijians and they had an amazing experience in working with the WCS staff from Bangladesh and soaking up the lifestyle and culture of this country. The highlights of their trip started with their journey downriver where they encountered the enigmatic river dolphins, the Irrawaddy and Ganges River dolphins, through to the Sundarban Reserve. This reserve boasts the largest block of mangrove forest in the world and hosts a multitude of species including the rare Royal Bengali tigers, crocodiles, monkeys, deer, various birds, fish, mammals and plants. They continued on to the Bay of Bengal where they conducted extensive studies on the resident but timid Humpback dolphins while also encountering pods of Bottlenose dolphins, Finless porpoises and a Bryde’s Whale.

This intense and informative research trip provided a great insight on the biodiversity and human induced impacts on natural resources from another region, while also training the WCS Fiji staff on the various methodologies that can be applied when conducting scientific surveys on dolphins and whales in Fiji.

 

Proceedings of 2nd Fiji Conservation Science Forum

Full Proceedings of the 2nd FCSF are now available on CD, including copies of all the 53 presentations. Please come and pick up your CD from the WCS Fiji office at 11 Ma’afu Street in Suva. If you are not based in Suva and would like a copy, please let us know and we will send a CD by post. The summary Proceedings (without links to the presentations) can also be downloaded from our website at: http://www.wcsfiji.org/Resources/ConferenceProceedings/tabid/3427/Default.aspx

 

The Forum was held in Suva in September 2011 and the main theme was “Confronting the Climate-Biodiversity Crisis”, in recognition of the fact that climate change is an overarching threat that may be exacerbating impacts to species and habitats in Fiji and the region. As a lead off to the event, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, highlighted the many ways that climate change is affecting biodiversity in the region and offered some thought-provoking solutions for managing the problems. The keynote presentation was followed over the course of three days by seven thematic sessions on (1) Ecology and Management of Fiji’s Watersheds, (2) Terrestrial Species, (3) Marine Species, (4) Results from Fiji’s Locally Managed Marine Areas, (5) Scaling-up Local Management to Meet National Priorities, (6) Socio-Ecological Tools for Climate Change Adaptation, and (7) Adaptive Management. The room at Studio 6 was consistently full with at least 195 participants from 64 different organizations across academia, development, community, government, non-government, and the private sector.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg delivers his keynote address to open the 2nd Fiji Conservation Science Forum in Suva.