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.

Where, oh where, has my sea cucumber gone?

World Oceans Day, June 8, 2013

“Did you see any sea cucumbers?” I asked Ron as he struggled to get back aboard the inflatable tender.

“None”

“What about you, Wili?” I questioned.

He simply shook his head.

Day after day as we are being towed around the inner and outer reef systems of the Yasayasamoala Group of the Lau Islands, we are coming up with zeros on our data sheets. It’s disappointing work.

In the meantime, tin drying racks in the villages of Totoya and Matuku islands have been full of the critters. So far, Wili Saladrau, from Fiji Department of Fisheries, recorded over 700 individual sea cucumber (in the dried form called “bêche-de-mer”). This includes over 60 Holothuria fuscogilva (white teatfish) that can sell for over US$50 (FJ$100) a piece to specialty buyers in Fiji.

So are the local fishers just better at finding the sea cucumbers? Probably. If I was getting paid that much money per individual harvested, I’m sure that I would “get my eye in” much quicker in order to be able to spot them on the reef. But still, the densities of sea cucumber populations are running dangerously low.

Wili, Ron Vave of the University of the South Pacific, and I were asked by the Lau Provincial Office to do an assessment of the status of sea cucumber populations during the Living Oceans Foundation Fiji expedition throughout the Lau island group. Bêche-de-mer is a major source of income to coastal communities in Lau, but there is concern that the populations are on the precipice of collapse.

Serial depletion of sea cucumbers has occurred throughout the world to feed a growing middle class market in Asia, hungry for bêche-de-mer. While bêche-de-mer have been traded for at least 1000 years, the value of the catch has increased enormously over the past two to three decades as species are exploited and crash, thus becoming rarer commodities.

Sea cucumbers are long, tubular benthic echinoderms (in the same phylum as sea urchins) belonging to the class Holothuroidae. They were once found in most temperate and tropic benthic habitats worldwide, ranging from shallow intertidal areas to the deep sea. The majority of sea cucumbers move across the seafloor ingesting detritus and other reef gunk, thus cleaning the sediments and potentially reducing the spread of harmful algae. Because they can grow to be quite large, and many are conspicuously shaped and coloured, sea cucumbers are extremely vulnerable to fishing. In addition, population recovery is hampered by their slow growth rates and long time to reach maturity. Furthermore, when populations become too sparse and sea cucumbers cannot sense other individuals of the same species, they will fail to breed, resulting in local population collapse.

There is general lack of awareness of these population dynamics in Fiji. Although use of SCUBA for fishing is prohibited under the Fiji Fisheries Act, the Fiji Department of Fisheries has been issuing exemptions to traders. These middlemen supply local community members with gear and possibly some training if they are lucky – and then the race is on to catch the last of the sea cucumbers. Young men are diving 50, 60, 70, and sometimes over 80 m to find the remaining individuals from high value species. They are dying fairly regularly. Others are suffering debilitating side effects from the bends. I met one man during surveys in western Bua Province in November 2012 who was relegated to growing watermelons after becoming incapacitated from diving related injuries.

In Lau, most of the fishers are free diving, but apparently they are quite talented and can easily reach depths between 20-30 m. Most fishers that we have interviewed so far are happy with the status of the sea cucumber fishery as they are fetching high prices and the money covers household expenses, church contributions, and higher education fees for children, as well as offers the ability to purchase some luxury items. But few of the fishers seem aware that the good fortune may soon run out. What will happen then when there are few other options for earning income out in these remote islands?

There may be potential for populations to recover if management action is taken now. It likely will not be sufficient to set up locally managed marine areas with a few no-take areas. The sea cucumbers are already so widely dispersed that they may already be unable to reproduce. More active management may be required. This could entail finding wild caught individuals and placing them in close proximity to one another within pens in the no-take areas to encourage their reproduction and dispersal of their larvae into the open areas that everyone can access to fish. This strategy should optimally be coupled with minimum size limits so that people do not remove all of the young sea cucumbers before they reach maturity.

In honor of World Oceans Day, I ponder these issues in order to raise hope by coming up with creative solutions. Over the next few years, the Wildlife Conservation Society and other members of the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area network aim to try out several different types of management with communities to see what works, what doesn’t work, and why. Ideally we want local communities to have a better understanding of sustainable extraction rates so that they will be able to maintain livelihood benefits into the future.

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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.

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.