Macuata Province trials a method to improve fisheries management in their fishing grounds

Macuata Province trials a method to improve fisheries management in their fishing grounds

By: Kelera Serelini

Traditional leaders need to be passionate about conservation and address issues concerning the protection of their natural resources said Macuata high chief, Ratu Williame Katonivere.

Macuata Province has one of the largest customary fishing grounds in Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island.

The Province, under the traditional fishing grounds of Macuata Qoliqoli Cokovata which encompasses four districts of Dreketi, Macuata, Sasa and Mali, has custodial ownership for a section of the Great Sea Reef, the second longest reef in the world.

“At the traditional leadership level one has to be aware of the issues that would one day affect food sources for our people,” Ratu Williame said during the recent Fisheries Forum attended by representatives from the fishing industry.

Tui Macuata, Ratu Wiliame Katonivere. Credit:WCS

Tui Macuata, Ratu Wiliame Katonivere (far right) during the Fisheries Forum. Credit:WCS

“I have read government policies and our Millennium Development Goals and we’re informed that there is a decrease in fish stocks and as a leader, I have to worry about this.” He continued on to say Chiefs need to participate in fora like this as they are the one that help enforce fisheries laws to their people.

We need to help the Ministry of Fisheries to put a structure in place to ensure that our community efforts are recognised and every chief is aware of all the necessary information to effectively manage their resources for the future.”

The Province of Macuata is currently trialling a method to improve fisheries management. They are making it a requirement that all local and commercial fishers operating in the province provide their catch data to the Ministry of Fisheries.

Ratu Williame also stated “I’m also collating data from within my province so that I’m more aware of the resources we have and what we need to protect. I want to take a similar approach with our forest resources. Our people need to be aware that these timbers would be more valuable if they are left alone for our future generation.”

He added, “like the people of Bua, we also share the vision to protect our natural resources and I will use my traditional role to ensure that our efforts are recognised and our future generation also share in the richness of our resources in years to come.

Spawning surveyors set to research fish maturity in Fiji

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Dr Jeremy Prince from Biospherics teaches shows participants how to assess size of maturity of reef fish

Over the course of three days, 35 Fijian fisheries scientists and managers successfully completed an intensive training program to assess the size of maturity in key coral reef fish and invertebrates.

Led by fisheries biologist Dr Jeremy Prince from Biospherics in Australia, the training was designed so that those participating in the workshop are equipped with the theoretical knowledge and the practical skills to lead these surveys. Part of the training focused on how to work with local fishers to do the surveys, focusing on fish that are important to local people. The idea being is that if communities better understand when fish mature and are able to reproduce, they will value the role size limits play in sustaining their fisheries.

Fijian Department of Fisheries Extension Officer Mr. Anare Luvunakoro said, “This training will help us better understand the sizes that important food fishes are now maturing at and when they are able to reproduce replenishing our reefs. I am from Kadavu and based at the Fisheries Office on the island; this information will enable our fisherman to make informed choices on the sizes of fish like Ta which they harvest”.

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Looking at the maturity of gonads (reproductive organs) of reef fish in Fiji

Organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society, at least fifty percent of the participants were women who were largely from the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests and the University of the South Pacific.
Wildlife Conservation Society Country Director, Dr. Sangeeta Mangubhai says that “on a national scale Fiji currently have over 135 management efforts in 410 iqoliqoli areas representing 79 per cent of Fiji’s inshore fishing area. Using this data, and rapid assessment techniques designed for countries with limited resources, we can quickly assess the health of our reef fish stocks and whether we can continue to fish at current levels or whether we need to reduce our fishing effort.”

A number of fish species were highlighted for survey including kawakawa and donu, which are groupers that have been highlighted through the 4FJ Movement, as well as species that are important to communities, like nuqa (rabbitfish), ta (unicornfish) and damu (mangrove snapper).

“Basically, minimum legal fish sizes are not just random or arbitrary numbers. The size limits in Fiji are there to ensure we are not taking fish before they have had a chance to reproduce and contribute to the next generation of fish”, Dr. Mangubhai concluded.

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Participants of the training of trainers course on the assessment of size of maturity of reef fish in Fiji

Words by Dwain Qalovaki and images by Harriet Davies and Sangeeta Mangubhai

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.

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 (

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