Returning to Kia Island

WCS staff Sirilo Dulunaqio looks at Kia Island approaching in the distance.

WCS staff Sirilo Dulunaqio looks at Kia Island approaching in the distance.

Spend more than a few minutes on Kia Island and it is obvious that the residents enjoy their fishing. But fishing isn’t just for pleasure, it is a way of life for the communities of Yaro, Ligau and Daku who live on a speck of land no more than 3 square kilometres perched on the edge of Fiji’s Great Sea Reef.

A Kia fisher holds up a sizable catch

A Kia fisher holds up a sizable catch

While the spectacular scenery of the tall rocky cliffs of the island and the warm hospitality of the people of Kia remained the same, much had changed since my last visit in 2009. There was power every night. Sky Pacific satellite dishes crowned the roofs of houses. I no longer needed to walk surreptitiously across the schoolyard to go bathe at the single well with a resident freshwater eel now that large water tanks flanked most of the village houses.

Seagrass and algal beds emergent at low tide on Kia Island

Seagrass and algal beds emergent at low tide on Kia Island

The improvements in lifestyle are probably related to increased fishing income. When I first came to Kia Island in 2008, we saw more fish on the reef than I had ever seen in my life. The values of fish biomass we recorded were nearly off the charts – some of the highest figures that have been published for anywhere in the world. I doubt they are anywhere near the same today.

A few days after we began our surveys, the Kia communities announced that they were opening up their tabu area to fishing. Within four weeks, they had removed nearly 70-80% of the fish biomass, primarily targeting large trevally, unicornfish, grouper, snapper, parrotfish and emperor. Those fish that didn’t get caught, “bailed out” of the tabu area and fled to other adjacent areas of reef, as we noted from a spike in fish numbers and biomass at adjacent survey sites open to fishing.

In 2009, I had the WCS marine team return to Kia Island to look for evidence of recovery as the tabu had supposedly been put back in place. Our results, however, showed a reduction of fish numbers and sizes, suggesting that people were still fishing.

Why? Well, the locals told us that they saw boats from Labasa continuing to fish inside their tabu area – clearly people were not respecting the tabu. We also know that middlemen from seafood export companies moved onto the island, thus there was easy access to a reliable market and hard cash. Hard cash can be used to purchase more fishing gear and boats, thus leading to more fishing pressure.

While the main purpose of our visit this year was to collect some additional social survey information to inform an analysis of the overall effectiveness of management, I also wanted to make sure to present the outcomes of the tabu harvest to the communities.

WCS staff Sirilo Dulunaqio interviewing a fisher from Ligau Village, Kia Island

WCS staff Sirilo Dulunaqio interviewing a fisher from Ligau Village, Kia Island

In Yaro Village in particular, there was a lot of discussion. People were genuinely concerned that the level of fishing might not be sustainable, but they feel a bit powerless to make rules to control effort. The Tui Macuata has the ultimate authority regarding when the tabu area can be opened, thus, to use a banking analogy, there is reluctance to reinstate the tabu for fear that the accrued benefits will be withdrawn by people from outside the community.

The Kia communities are caught in a governance dilemma. What are some of the possible solutions? We counselled them that they could form a fishing committee to be able to take a stronger, unified voice to Bose Vanua meetings to discuss the issues with the traditional community leaders. Because there is such a small area of land available on Kia for planting crops, the communities are nearly completely dependent on fishing for their livelihoods, and outside fishing pressure represent a real threat to their very existence.

Secondly, they can continue the excellent monitoring that they are already doing to assess whether the fish that they are catching are reproductively mature. If too many fish are taken out of the water before they are able to replenish the stock, populations will eventually fall below levels needed to support food and income needs.

Trained fish catch monitors on Kia Island are recording the size and sexual maturity status of each fish caught.

Trained fish catch monitors on Kia Island are recording the size and sexual maturity status of each fish caught.

Kia fishers are regularly assessing whether fish caught are sexually mature by looking at their gonads.

Kia fishers are regularly assessing whether fish caught are sexually mature by looking at their gonads.

Unfortunately, Kians have been hit by a double whammy. In addition to increased fishing pressure, Tropical Cyclone Evan wreaked havoc on their reef. The brilliant colours of the fringing reef bordering the island are gone – likely victim to the cyclone’s thrashing in December 2012, as evidenced by many tipped over coral plates. Instead, it is pipefish paradise as they hide in the turf algae waiting to feed on small unsuspecting invertebrates like copepods. Without a high number of “sasamaki fish” – the fish that eat the algae and clean up the reef – the corals will be unlikely to come back and the reef structure will degrade, thus reducing habitat for other fish and their prey.

One of many pipefish hunting in turf algal habitat on heavily impacted fringing reefs of Kia Island

One of many pipefish hunting in turf algal habitat on heavily impacted fringing reefs of Kia Island

Now is the time to act. We hope to bring back soon the outcomes of our work on periodic harvests of tabu areas to provide better guidelines of how much can be harvested from tabu areas and how often. We are also keen to partner with other NGOs, like WWF, to help the communities come up with a plan to control fishing effort and move towards sustainable extraction levels.

Surveys done, despite a few bumps today

Jordan Goetze and Sam Moyle resetting cameras under a large tarp. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Jordan Goetze and Sam Moyle resetting cameras under a large tarp. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

We woke up to another very rainy morning, the ground thoroughly soaked with the downpour we had last night. Still we were full of energy as it was our last day to complete the surveys inside and outside Natokalau’s tabu area.

Lagoonal corals in Ovalau. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Lagoonal corals in Ovalau. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Unfortunately, one of the hazards of working in remote locations is that boats break down, or in our case, would not start. So with much frustration Waisea, one of our longest employed staff from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), made a quick dash to Levuka to find a battery for the boat. There were no batteries to be found and so the village kindly lent us one of their boats.

Soft coral in Ovalau Lagoon. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Soft coral in Ovalau Lagoon. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Unfortunately for me, the boat was small and weight-restricted (not that I am saying I am heavy!!), so the boys headed out on their own to do the final surveys. It was a long cold day for them, with little respite between rainstorms. But the work got done and they returned with tired smiles. For Jordan Goetze this means that his field work is now officially over, and he has a year ahead of him analysing his data and writing up his PhD thesis. For us at WCS, it means we need to start turning the science into guidelines that local communities can use to make decisions about their tabu areas.

Large branching Porites colony in Ovalau Lagoon. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

I would like to end my last blog for this trip with some underwater images of the reefs in Ovalau to give you a little peak into what lies beneath the water. And I end this blog with a promise that I will be back again to work more closely with these inspiring communities to help them find solutions to improving the state of their reefs and the fisheries they are so dependent on.

By Sangeeta Mangubhai on Day 5 of Periodic Harvest survey.
Check out Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 or Day 4 blogs

Exploring the outer reefs of Ovalau Island

Last night we stayed up late sharing a bowl of yaqona (also known as kava) and talked about some of the findings of the tabu surveys with village leaders, and what the results mean for their community.

Samu demonstrating spearfishing techniques. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Samu demonstrating spearfishing techniques. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

There is great enthusiasm to expand the tabu area further north, south and out to sea to provide a larger area for fish recovery. Inoke who is a passionate conservationist from the village and quite the visionary, suggested we do a trip to look at the areas he is proposing and to do a quick assessment of how healthy the reefs were on the outer reefs that are connected to deeper oceanic waters.

Outer Reef near lighthouse. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Outer Reef near lighthouse. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

So we navigated our way around patch reefs in the lagoon out to a lighthouse that marks the northern most point of the reef surrounding Ovalau Island. As we dropped into the water we were delighted to see a healthy thriving coral community along the top of the outer reef and dropping down the slope to at last 20m. The top of the reef generally has more sturdy varieties of coral, as it has to withstand ocean swell and crashing waves throughout the different seasons. Corals often do better in these locations as cooler water comes off the ocean and mixes in the water column keep corals cool and free of heat stress.

Healthy coral communities in Ovalau. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Healthy coral communities in Ovalau. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Unfortunately the fish populations were not thriving as well and we saw clear signs of overfishing – very few predatory fish like groupers (known locally as kawakawa and donu) and few large herbivorous fish. Samu Baravilala, who is also assisting us from Nauouo village, demonstrated a popular fishing method used on these reefs and talks about how hard it is to sometimes catch fish.

Thriving corals in one the outer reefs of Ovalau. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Thriving corals in one the outer reefs of Ovalau. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

As we travel back, we talk more about the importance of placing tabu areas in the right places. How important it is to protect a full range of habitats, especially if we want to ensure fish recovery is maximised. Our time in Nauouo highlighted the importance of the work we are doing. Communities urgently need better guidelines on managing tabu areas to ensure their efforts are resulting in better fisheries management. Better fisheries management means there will be enough fish for the next generation to enjoy!

By Sangeeta Mangubhai on Day 3 of the Periodic Harvest survey
Check out Day 1 & Day 2 blog

Surveying Nauouo ‘Tabu’ Area

Samu Baravilala and Waisea Naisilisili prepare lunch on the beach. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Samu Baravilala and Waisea Naisilisili prepare lunch on the beach. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

After heavy rain that continued on throughout the night, we awoke to sunshine and a calm blue ocean – it was a perfect day for surveying fish. Jordan Goetze (a PhD student from the University of Western Australia) and Sam Moyle (Western Australia Fisheries) meticulously check the gear and calibrate cameras carefully before we headed out, as mistakes can be costly in science.

Jordan Goetze prepares the cameras. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Jordan Goetze prepares the cameras. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Once the two cameras are ready and mounted on the frame the survey work is not hard. It simply involves swimming along the edge of the reef, holding the camera as steady as possible. At each site, we do six 50m transects recording underwater video. The surveys themselves take only 20 minutes, but Jordan tells me that each video from each site takes him a whole day to analyse.

Sam operating the underwater camera. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Sam operating the underwater camera. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Back in the laboratory he has to set up two televisions to watch both videos simultaneously, so that he gets a three dimensional view of the reef in front of him. From each video he records all the species of fish on the video, and their sizes. I learned that this technique has greater accuracy than using divers counting fish under the water, and he actually has a paper coming out with our Director Dr. Stacy Jupiter, to prove this.

Waisea, Sam and Jordan confirming which sites to survey. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Waisea, Sam and Jordan confirming which sites to survey. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Throughout the course of the day, we surveyed reefs both inside and outside a large community tabu area that Nauouo village has set up inside the lagoon. The reefs form a patchwork of reefs in the sandy lagoon. We saw a wide range of reefs from those teaming with live corals, to more degraded reefs covered with lots of algae. With just the eye, it was hard to judge how much the tabu areas had recovered from their last harvest, though I did notice a lot of juvenile parrotfish and wrasses.

Ovalau Island in the Lomaiviti Province. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Ovalau Island in the Lomaiviti Province. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

We really won’t know the answer until Jordan finishes analysing all those video tapes. With nine sites surveys, that is nine full days of work he has ahead of him. We are lucky to be working with Jordan, who really wants to make sure his research makes a difference to people on the ground in Fiji.

By Sangeeta Mangubhai on Day 2 of the Periodic Harvest survey
Check out the Day 1 blog

Maximising Benefits of ‘Tabu’ Areas for Local Communities

A profile of Fiji's old capital, Levuka at low tide. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

A profile of Fiji’s old capital, Levuka at low tide. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Finally after much planning and a minor setback (ferry stopped for two days!), we are off to the island of Ovalau in the province of Lomaiviti. Ovalau is a popular place for locals and tourists, who flock to Levuka our former capital city (until 1877), which was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Area. I have a great fondness for Levuka as I spent many a school holiday barefoot with friends, swimming and pottering about the shoreline with not a care in the world.

Over the next six days, a small team of scientists from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the University of Western Australia (UWA) will be doing surveys of fish abundance and size in the traditional fishing grounds of Nauouo and Natokalaus. It has been a year since the team has visited these villages to participate in the opening of a community ‘tabu’ area and to help the community monitor their harvest. Tabu are important traditional fisheries management tools that are used across Fiji, as well as other Melanesian countries, as a way to manage specific fisheries resources. However, there is increasing pressure on communities to open tabu areas for harvesting for food or much needed income.

Levuka town has retained a lot of it's Colonial architecture. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Levuka town has retained a lot of it’s Colonial architecture. Image by Sangeeta Mangubhai

Why is this this of research important? Well, WCS is trying to gather this data to help develop guidelines to local communities about the opening, closing and harvesting of tabu areas. Communities keep asking us questions like “how do we decide when to open our tabu area?” “How long should we close the tabu area for?” “When we open our tabu areas, how much fish can we take out?” These are great questions, and well, it is about time we scientists help get some of the answers!

Our time in the village will also give us a chance to present some of the preliminary results from our work, and learn more from communities about their reefs and natural resources, they are so dependent on.

So follow along over the next four days as we complete our surveys and try and understand how well fish communities have recovered after the harvesting of two community tabu areas almost 12 months ago.

And feel free to post questions to any of the scientists!

By Sangeeta Mangubhai