Understanding the role communities play in the sea cucumber fishery

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By Sangeeta Mangubhai

We are currently in Natokalau village, where we will be based for a week doing our value chain analysis surveys in different villages in Kubulau district, in Bua Province. Margaret Fox, Wildlife Conservation Society’s dynamic social scientist, has been leading the surveys with Tevita Vodivodi from the Department of Fisheries and our lively volunteers. Each day they sit down with fishers from different villages and ask them questions that help us understand their role and engagement in this fishery.

Questions vary from when they go fishing for sea cucumbers, how often and with whom, to questions relating to their catch and how much they earn from selling different species of sea cucumbers. We try and find out if they process the sea cucumbers themselves or prefer to sell the live animals to middlemen or exporters directly. Importantly, we ask how much the money they receive from sea cucumbers contributes to their fortnightly or monthly income. This allows us to understand how dependent they are on the resource, and if they have other options available to them, such as agriculture or copra.

Quality of the processing and the final product are important in this fishery and can impact on the income local communities make from their sea cucumbers. Villagers that know how, and how long to cook sea cucumbers without causing their skins to blister and break open get a better price for their product. Those that know how to gut, salt and dry the sea cucumbers get an even higher price, if it is done properly.

What has been interesting to learn is how some villagers operate individually, and others operate collectively. The ones that are operating collectively as a village, strictly controlling tabu areas and the timing of harvests appear to be doing much better. The money they earn gets used to provide facilities (e.g. schools, church) and village projects where everyone benefits. They also have stronger bargaining powers when it comes to selling their product, and more incentive to manage their fishery sustainably.

As Margaret and I reflected on this, she reminded me of an old slogan that was used in Fiji a few years ago that appears to be alive here in Kubulau – “Conservation Begins With Communities.”

Koro Expedition 2014

It was the fourth pass in a tiny plane over the remote island of Koro that I lost my sense of awe at the lush green volcanic slopes crashing into turquoise coloured reefs.. and began to worry for my life. As we wondered how much fuel the plane had left, the pilots peered through the window for a glimpse of the fog-shrouded runway that had completely vanished in the rain. As I tried not to grip the seat in front of me, the ancient propeller plane circled one last time, lurched to the ground, and bumped and skidded uphill onto the wet-slicked landing strip to stop at a tiny building. We had arrived on Koro island in style.

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Koro, like many islands in the dotted archipelago of Fiji, practice a traditional form of fishery management to periodically harvest fish from the sea. To build up enough fish for a feast, a community decides not fish a small area (called the tabu and pronounced tambu) for a period of time and wait to harvest it in an intense effort over several days or weeks. WCS Fiji has been working with many of these communities over the last few years to document the ecological impacts of traditional harvests and help communities make decisions on when, where and for how long to close off tabu areas in order to rebuild fish stocks. In the next week, the village of Nakodu would be fishing their tabu for the first time in over a year. Researchers from WCS, the University of Western Australia and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, had taken ferries, trucks and moderately unreliable planes from all over the world to arrive at Nakodu village on Koro Island and document this year’s harvest.

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The village of Nakodu is nestled in the slope of an ancient volcano now covered with steep, lush foliage intermixed with local crops of cassava, papaya, sugar cane and coconuts. There are about 60+ households in the village, a host of friendly Nakodu villagers to greet you and many a welcoming ibe dina (pandanus mat) to sit and drink kava into the late hours of the night. Made from crushing the roots of a kava plant (Piper methysticum) into a white powder that is stirred through water and chugged from a coconut bowl, drinking kava is a nightly social activity (and commonly called ‘grog’ for the notoriously groggy and numbing hangover you face each morning).


On our first evening, freshly clad in our traditional sulus or sarongs, the village chief was presented with a bundle of fresh kava root and a sperm whale’s tooth – a sacred gift in Fijian culture to show how seriously we took our request – and we asked permission for the village to open the tabu closure and document the community’s catch of fish. By lantern light during the sevusevu, the village chief consulted the elders, chanted in Fijian, and granted us permission.

It’s been a year since Stacy and her team last visited Nakodu, but everyone remembered them and their record haul of over 3000 coral reef fish from the tabu last year. Since then, the fish inside the tabu had been growing in size and number and WCS had returned to see the impacts of a second harvest on Nakodu’s fish communities. Tabu are important traditional fisheries management tools, but increasing pressure to open the tabus for harvesting had left them potentially vulnerable to overexploitation. With sustainable management, locally managed areas like tabus can maintain fish populations over the long-term, harvest fish to pay for community services, support fishing livelihoods and empower communities with the ability to manage their own resources sustainably. But many questions remain unanswered, such as, how often or how intensive can a community harvest a tabu and how long to let the areas recover in between harvests so that fish populations grow in size and number. By returning to Koro island one year after the last fish harvest, Stacy and her team can begin to reveal the answers to these questions.

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The team spent the first few days of counting corals and fish inside and outside the tabu to assess the status of corals and fish before the harvest. Dive tanks, masks, snorkels, cameras, transects lines and assorted gear were hauled in and out of the water each day. One of the biggest challenges was a broken dive compressor that had been damaged in the two days of travel from Suva — without it, we had no way to fill the 24 SCUBA tanks they had brought all the way from Suva. Luckily, the logistical creativity of Waisea, Margy and Yash sorted out the compressor and another boat (the other WCS boat was in for repair on another island).


As usual, I was travelling on my stomach and can happily provide an account of our daily feasts, including taro leave patties, roti dipped in freshly squeezed coconut milk, eggplant-wrapped fish fried in coconut, freshwater prawns harvested from the stream, octopus and fish: fish soup, boiled fish, fried fish. We even gnawed on raw fish straight out of the ocean briefly marinated in lime juice and hot chili (thanks to Jordan’s spearfishing and Didi’s Master Chef skills on the boat at lunchtime).


While we were surveying Nakodu’s coral reefs, the women of the village were fixing holes in the net and the men were gathering long water vines (or wa-lai) for the harvest. On our fifth day in the village, it was harvest time. Amidst pouring rain, the village and the WCS team swam out to the reef crest and the harvest began! More than 80 people from the village wearing tennis shoes, flip flops, gum boots or in bare feet hung onto the vines and started to pull them in closer and closer together. I must admit that at first it was hard to see how hanging on for dear life to a kilometre-long tree branch in the middle of a coral reef could catch hundreds and hundreds of fish. But as the vine was pulled in tighter and the boats coordinated the fish drive like cowboys on horses with the rich call of the triton shell, we stood shallower and shallower on the reef until we were all side-to-side. In front of us was a large, seething and hectic fish ball of snappers, parrotfish, surgeonfish, wrasses and other reef fish trapped in the middle!Everyone suddenly rushed towards a gill net, forcing the fish into a surging mass of mesh, feet, heads, tails, people, knives flashing, nets straining and much cheering. It was pure chaos! The net was barely able to be hauled up onto the skiff (apparently they nearly sank a boat in last year’s harvest!) and everyone erupted into a cheers, hoots and hollers at the giant haul of fish in the harvest.

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As dusk turned to dark turned to pitch black, the net was landed on shore and the harvest assessed. Under the light of headlamps and torches, Stacy and her team identified and measured pile after pile of fish, counting 1001 fish in all sizes, colours, shapes and species. Covered in fish scales, we finally stood back and watched the ladies organize and dole out small piles of fish for every family in Nakodu and the neighbouring village of Mudu. Celebrations were in order (after a dinner of fish!) and we spent the night gathered around the never-ending kava bowl, listened to traditional Fijian guitar music by lamplight as the generator died and shared bowls of grog and dances with our fellow fishers and neighbours in Nakodu.

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After a successful harvest, we all head our different ways. Most of the team will stay on for a few days to resurvey the sites and assess at the impact of the intense harvest before heading back to Suva. The UWA researchers will have many hours of processing fish survey videos ahead of them and the California team will start mathematically modelling the impact of the harvest. As for me, I head home to Canada to think about protecting coral reefs from climate change and the incredible and inspiring cultural practices that these coastal ecosystems support.

Vanaka vaka levu Fiji, and thanks for all the fish.


Koro team 2014: Stacy Jupiter, Waisea Naisilisili, Yashika Nand, Margaret Fox, Sirilo Dulunaqio (Didi), Kino Koto, Luke Gordon, Jordan Goetze, Todd Bond, Crow White, Paul Carvalho, Emily Darling, with many, many thanks to the friendliest village of Nakodu, Koro island

This was a guest blog written and photographed by Dr. Emily Darling, a David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow at the University of North Carolina and an affiliate research with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Follow her on Twitter (@emilysdarling) or her website (www.emilysdarling.com

Kubulau District: Setting the conservation pace

Kubulau District traditional fisheries management area. Photo (c) Chris Roelfsema

Kubulau District traditional fisheries management area. Photo (c) Chris Roelfsema

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

Where science & tradition meet: Vuya marks two milestones

In February, members of Vuya Village officially blessed their marine protected areas and launched their natural resource management plan. This special event began with a traditional kava ceremony for the district chief, Tui Vuya, and was followed by prayer and blessings from the church. The community has designated three different marine managed areas to protect fish and invertebrates and to help generate income for the community.

Located less than 10 km from the port of Nabouwalu in Bua Province on the south-west coast of Vanua Levu, the people of Vuya are heavily dependent on natural resources for their health and livelihoods. For this reason, the village created both development and natural resource management plans which focus on ways they can improve the status and well-being of their community. They feel that it is their duty as the “vanua” and as Christians to take care of the land and sea, and that they shouldn’t be reliant on outsiders to do so.

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Their marine protected areas (known locally as tabu) are not designated to be permanent ‘no-take zones’ but traditional temporal closures to help the community use their resources more wisely so there will always be enough now and for the children of the future. They will also help the community generate income through a newly established pearl oyster farm and community plans to sustainably farm beche-de-mer (or dried sea cucumbers).

Acknowledging the connectivity between ecosystems and taking a “ridge to reef” approach, community protected forest areas have been designated surrounding their drinking water sources. Village by-laws have been created to prohibit farming or cutting trees within 10 metres of any watercourse.

“The biggest challenge is ensuring that everyone works together to deliver the plan” said Mateo Rasili, a village elder who has been heavily involved. “There are about 570 people in Vuya including seven settlements and six religions. We try to focus on good governance as the foundation for any work we do.

In the past two years we have been working to try to bring the different community groups closer together and respect each other in spite of any differences. Projects like our mangrove nursery and the women’s chicken coop have helped bring us together and we have been utilizing our cultural ties and traditional community structure to help achieve our goals. ”

Vuya villagers are currently working with other communities to develop the Vuya District Ecosystem-Based Management Plan, incorporating a wider network of protected areas and management rules covering all ecosystems. The Vuya village model shows how relationship building, awareness raising and collective action can inform ‘bottom-up’ community planning and establish a solid foundation for collaborative management.

Words and images by Brooke McDavid, U.S. Peace Corps volunteer

Reviewing the Management Plan in Fiji’s largest District

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It is almost a year since the Tui Wailevu (district high chief) stood with other chiefs, community members and government officers on the beach beside Wailevu Village to launch the Wailevu Ecosystem-Based Management Plan.

Two Resource Management Committees (RMCs) for Wailevu West and Wailevu East that oversee implementation and monitoring of the management plan recently came together in Urata Village with government officers and NGOs to review progress. They highlighted growing and emerging threats to local ecosystems and reviewed the management rules, protected area boundaries and management activities. Coastal communities discussed increasing fishing pressures from local artisanal fishers, commercial vessels and poachers. Concerns were expressed about new mining elements and increased levels of commercial gravel extraction from local rivers and creeks.

Success stories included progress in waste management and sustainable income generation, particularly community eco-tourism projects, which benefit from increasing numbers of tourists coming through the nearby town of Savusavu.

Participants stressed the need to further raise awareness and support within their villages. Using the ‘message box’ methodology provided through Seaweb Asia-Pacific, participants undertook training to distill key messages and plan how they will be delivered to specific audiences. This was mapped against village communication and decision-making structures to enable targeted awareness-raising and optimize their influence on key people.

The RMCs reviewed their structures and protocols to increase flexibility and engagement across Fiji’s biggest district (home to 28 villages and over 6,000 people). This led to the development of new ‘cluster groups’ in remote Wailevu West, where neighbouring villages will meet regularly and only come together with the wider committee once a year.

The Cakaudrove Yaubula Management Support Team, a group of volunteers committed to help site-based management implementation around the province, provided updates on what is happening elsewhere in the province and the RMCs also adopted monitoring templates developed in neighboring Kubulau district in the province of Bua.

Words by Ged Acton & Images by Dwain Qalovaki
WCS – Fiji Program