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Kubulau is remotely situated in on the south coast of Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island. With a growing population, heavy reliance on subsistence farming and fishing and lack of access to markets, the people of Kubulau have to manage their resources sustainably to survive.
Fortunately, they have an abundance of natural resources and maintain a very strong connection with their environment. For over a decade, the people of Kubulau have been at the forefront of community-led management in Fiji – investing their time, industry and expertise to ensure that management decisions are informed by the best available knowledge.
The Kubulau Resource Management Committee (KRMC, established in 2007 to ensure effective participation of communities in local management) established Fiji’s first district-level ‘ridge-to-reef’ management plan in 2009.
This applied an ecosystem-based management (EBM) approach and included a network of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine protected areas. Since then, the plan has been implemented, monitored, reviewed and amended periodically to reflect monitoring results and evolving priorities.
With support from the Coral Reef Alliance, KRMC has developed a voluntary payment scheme through which visitors to the Namena Marine Reserve (Fiji’s largest reserve, managed by the Kubulau communities as a permanent no-take zone since the early 1990s) support local community projects. Equitable sharing of these benefits between coastal and inland communities has enhanced commitment to conservation management, with Kubulau widely cited as leading the way for conservation (including recognition from the a prestigious Rareplanet Solution Search Award “Turning the Tides for Coastal Fisheries”).
In 2013, the KRMC applied for funding from the UNDP Fiji GEF Small Grants Programme. The project “Managing in land activities for safeguarding Kubulau’s Freshwater and Marine protected areas” is now well established.
Under this project, they have developed a collaborative approach to generate income through sustainable honey production. They have also engaged NGOs and government to develop land management zoning and waste management plans. Most recently, they have coordinated the planning and building of a district forest nursery.
A case study of EBM in Kubulau published in the journal Environmental Conservation identified key success factors including:
• Effective incorporation of local knowledge, traditions and priorities;
• Strong backing from traditional leaders;
• Clearly articulated relationships between local decision-making processes and government regulation; and
• Perceived equity in distribution of management benefits.
“Through this project we have proved something to ourselves. We planned the project. We obtained this funding. We are managing the activities and meeting our own reporting and accounting responsibilities” said Paulo Kolikata, the longstanding Chairman of KRMC. We still value the input of our government and NGO partners, but this gives us confidence to know we don’t need to rely on them.”
Kubulau continues to provide inspiration and learning as EBM spreads further in Fiji, with KRMC leading the way.
Words by Ged Acton
WCS – Fiji Program
Special to WCS by science writer, 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.
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.
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.
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.
I recently helped facilitate a workshop in Vuya village, about 5km from the port of Nabouwalu (in Bua Province on the south-west of Vanua Levu). Having met people from Vuya at various workshops over the past year, I was always impressed with their enthusiasm for conservation and their organized approach. I had seen their Village Development Plan, heard about their projects and am also developing a research proposal with Brooke McDavid, a Peace Corps volunteer based in the village. It’s fair to say I was excited to be visiting and keen to find out more.
After the traditional ceremony (sevusevu) to introduce ourselves and ask for acceptance, our guide Mateo showed us around. With a chiefly bure at its centre, the village rises up a hillside overlooking the Vatu-i-Ra Passage, a hot-spot for cetaceans and an important breeding ground for the endangered humpback whale. As well as taking in great views, our tour included a detailed explanation of local challenges and insight into why and how a range of recently established projects were developed, including: a local marine protected area; a mangrove nursery and replanting site; and vegetable gardens dotted around the village.
Chickens are the animal with which the Vuya villagers traditionally associate and they are not supposed to cook or eat them. They recently built an impressive commercial chicken coup (selling the eggs and using the waste as fertilizer) and we awoke each morning to the sound of roosters.
As we drank kava in the hall each evening, villagers wanted to find out more about what is happening around the province. They shared experiences with visitors from across Bua and expressed interest in working together. Maria and Tupi, two ladies from the village development committee, requested to attend and made great contributions to the workshop. Jaoti, a local farmer, sought interest in forming a local cooperative with an emphasis on sustainable farming methods.
We’ll certainly miss Vuya and its people (if not the rooster alarm clock). Their input will be essential to developing an effective district-level management plan and I hope we can return some day.
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.
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.
People 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.