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.