Marine Spatial Planning to Protect Biodiversity and $71M Fisheries and Tourism in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape

A group picture of all the stakeholders from across Government, Industry and Civil Society Organisations

Workshop participants from across government and civil society organisations

The Wildlife Conservation Society in collaboration with the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests hosted the second workshop on “Marine Spatial Planning for the Vatu-I-Ra Seascape” at the Tanoa Plaza Hotel in Suva on 8-9 December, 2015. The chief guest, the Acting Permanent Secretary for Fisheries and Forest, Mr. Sanaila Naqali opened the workshop providing full support for marine spatial planning in Fiji.

The Fijian Government's Acting Permanent Secretary for Fisheries Sanaila Naqali opened the workshop

Acting Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests Mr. Sanaila Naqali opening the spatial planning workshop

Marine spatial planning is a tool and a practical way to create and establish a more rational use of marine space and the interactions among its uses, to balance demands for development with the need to protect the environment, and to deliver social and economic outcomes in an open and planned way. This is the first time Fiji has attempted marine spatial planning over its state-owned offshore waters. We also have very few examples in the world of governments successfully applying marine spatial planning over offshore waters, so it is exciting to be leading such work in Fiji.

Fisheries Officer Tevita Vodivodidi presents on potential offshore areas

Fisheries Officer Tevita Vodivodi presents on zones for potential offshore marine managed areas

The Vatu-i-Ra Seascape is one of the most diverse and productive areas in Fiji, with the tourism and fisheries sector alone contributing at least FJ $71 million annually to the national economy. Marine spatial planning will ensure that  economic as well as cultural, social and biological values in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape are maintained in a balanced and fair way.

Discussion continues on areas that can be set aside as marine protected areas

Discussion continues on areas that can be set aside as marine managed areas in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape

Over 1.5 days, participants of the second marine spatial planning workshop reviewed areas they had identified as potential offshore (or deeper water) managed areas in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape in July 2015. Specifically they discussed and gained consensus on the placement, size and location of marine managed areas, and developed specific zones for each area. The successful establishment of potential marine managed areas in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape will make an important contribution to the government of Fiji’s commitment to protect 30% of its seas, including deep water offshore areas by 2020. This process is expected to pave a way for other important seascapes in Fiji to go through a similar planning process.

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

Spawning surveyors set to research fish maturity in Fiji

Fish spawning workshop3

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”.

Fish spawning workshop5

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.

Fish spawning workshop4

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

Green energy powers the Suva marathon

Former Pacific sprint queen Makelesi Bulikiobo and Robert Kafoa lead the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape team at the Suva Marathon. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Former Pacific sprint queen Makelesi Bulikiobo and Robert Kafoa lead the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape team at the Suva Marathon. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

As the starter gun fired in the rain on a windy August morning, 800 runners set out along the capital city’s sea wall as part of the South Pacific’s greatest road race, the Suva Marathon.

Even the young came out to the Suva Marathon to run in support of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Even the young came out to the Suva Marathon to run in support of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

A draw card of the marathon which saw runners complete the full marathon (40.2km), half marathon (21.1km), and 10 km fun run was the inclusion of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape and the Drautabua Acmopyle as the event’s sponsored charities.

Camari Kena and Kini Koto ran the Suva Marathon in support of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited.

Camari Kena and Kini Koto ran the Suva Marathon in support of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited.

Team captain Dwain Qalovaki said, “As part of our team, notable Fijians from across the sporting and media sectors ran to build public support for the protection of land and sea between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu”.

Pacific Games Triple Jump Gold medalist Eugene Vollmer lent his support toward the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Pacific Games Triple Jump Gold medalist Eugene Vollmer lent his support toward the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

High performance Fijian athletes participating in the Suva Marathon included the Pacific Games 2015 Shot Put Gold medalist Milika Tuivanuavou, Squash Bronze medalist Andra Whiteside, Athletics dual medalist Younis Bese, Triple Jump Gold medalist Eugene Vollmer, Cocoa Cola Fiji Games athletics champion Helena Young and former Pacific sprint queen Makelesi Bulikiobo, who still holds unbroken records in the region.

Vatu-i-Ra Seascape stakeholders came out in full force during the Suva Marathon to support the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Vatu-i-Ra Seascape stakeholders came out in full force during the Suva Marathon to support the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

“As we continue to grow the national conversation on being faithful stewards of our beautiful environment, engagement with Fijians from outside the conservation sector is critical. We are humbled that the athletes that joined us took time out of their training schedules to help raise awareness on the need to protect an area of land and sea that is closely linked to our culture, livelihoods and wellbeing”, said Mr. Qalovaki.

Fijian broadcast personalities Mervin Singh and Michelle Tevita - Singh running the Suva Marathon. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Fijian broadcast personalities Mervin Singh and Michelle Tevita – Singh running the Suva Marathon. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

Other notable Fijian runners included Miss Fiji Nanise Rainima, former Miss Fiji and Miss South Pacific Merewalesi Nailatikau, Niu Wave Magazine Deputy Editor Dawn Gibson as well as broadcast personalities Mervin Singh and Michelle Tevita – Singh.

He added that while support for the campaign at the Suva marathon was exceptional, conservation partners like the Department of Fisheries, Nature Fiji/Mareqeti Viti, World Wide Fund for Nature and the Wildlife Conservation Society also fielded runners was also overwhelming. This brought over 60 participants running for the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape.

NatureFiji/MareqetiViti's mascot 'Drautabua' ran the Suva Marathon which captured the attention of the young and young at heart. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

NatureFiji/MareqetiViti’s mascot ‘Drautabua’ ran the Suva Marathon which captured the attention of the young and young at heart. Image by Samuela Ulacake/VCreative Limited

“Our partnership with the Suva Marathon has been about creating awareness on this amazing blue – green jewel of forest and blue ocean. This special place is home to over 120 endemic plant and 1,000 fish species. This is a place worth fighting for so that it can be enjoyed by many more generations to come”, Mr Qalovaki concluded.

Mutiny on the Reef

Special to WCS by science writer, Amy West

Mt. Mutiny looms up from the sea bottom. Photo by Amy West

Mt. Mutiny looms up from the sea bottom.
Photo by Amy West

After the mutineers left Captain William Bligh to steer his own course, Bligh probably didn’t realize he’d passed so close to an astonishing seamount rising nearly straight up from the seafloor. Of course how could he, when cannibals were most likely chasing him from Fiji? In recognition of his plight, this popular dive spot has been christened Mt. Mutiny.

Plowing through calm waters between the two large islands of Fiji – Vanua Levu and Vitu Levu – where it feels like open ocean, “land” abruptly stops you in your wake: the seamount’s peak is visible at the surface. During low tide, you could theoretically walk on it.  Just a few hundred feet off its edge, the depth reaches down to 600 meters—a sheer drop.

Seamounts are usually rife with life. These undersea mountains are prime features for currents to swoop around and carry food to the diverse filter feeders such as corals and sponges. The stony and soft assemblages in turn attract an entire ecosystem of marine life that rivals most regions of the ocean. These volcanic structures can be uplifted mountains that are unhurriedly inching their way to the surface, such as the emerging island Lo’ihi in the Hawaiian Islands. Or they could be islands that have slowly eroded and sank like northern Hawaii’s Meiji seamount. We don’t know the history of Mt. Mutiny without drilling into it, but one thing is clear– it does not seem to be teeming with life. Many of the larger fish and top predators seemed to be out to lunch, or perhaps more likely, became lunch.

Stacy watches the ROV footage. Photo by Amy West

Stacy watches the ROV footage.
Photo by Amy West

Seamounts are hotspots for fish, which is why fisherman love them- the suspected reason that they are missing. With support from the Waitt Foundation and Institute to help create offshore-protected areas, the first item on the agenda was to document marine life below diver depths. The Institute’s contribution of their research vessel and camera-equipped robot allowed us a quick glimpse. This steep mountain had seemingly discrete bands of life: reef-building corals for about 30 meters, then softer corals below it, and different species like larger sea fans and encrusting algae and sponges below it. After 60 meters the seamount appeared more barren and so vertical that tracks of rubble flows were noticeable- as if someone had driven an ATV up its side.

Coral rubble flow down the seamount.  Photo by Amy West

Coral rubble flow down the seamount. Photo by Amy West

An astonishing amount of ambient light was still apparent at 150 meters, but not a lot of fish. Whether it was due to the loud, whirring vehicle or our limited field of view, dives near the surface also appeared devoid of large and abundant fish. Interestingly though, at 180 meters we found banner fish amongst saddleback snapper. One references notes a banner fish’s range to only 75 meters.

Additional dives will give us a better snapshot of the diversity. Yet, whatever this seamount’s patterns, bringing Fijis’ deeper underwater seascape to the surface is imperative. The release of oil exploration licenses around these islands calls for urgency to discover what might need protected before it could be destroyed.

Dr. Don Potts and Dr. Stacy Jupiter in Fiji

Dr. Don Potts and Dr. Stacy Jupiter in Fiji

On board the Waitt Institute research vessel, we are fortunate to have coral spotting guru, Dr. Don Potts from UCSC, as well his former PhD student, Dr. Stacy Jupiter, who has been WCS Fiji’s program director for the past five years. WCS’s Sea and Sky director Claudio Campagna, who specializes in the creation of Argentina’s pelagic marine protected areas, also aids in the conservation goals of this research leg.

Click on the link below to see exciting video footage from the ROV: Fiji seamount survey video

 

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.

Urgent protection needed for Vatu-i-Ra Island Sanctuary

Red-footed booby chick peering down from the remaining canopy

Red-footed booby chick peering down from the remaining canopy

Today was the first time that I stepped on Vatu-i-Ra Island in almost a year and a half. Right away, I knew things looked different.

“Why is there so much light streaming through the canopy?” I wondered.

And then I saw the branches and trunks of felled trees all around. Damage from Tropical Cyclone Evan? Possibly a little bit, but our hosts seemed to think that people were cutting trees to build fires for camping.

 

 

The small (2.3 ha) Vatu-i-Ra Island, located off of Ra Province, is a critically important seabird site, home to a large breeding colony of black noddies (Anous minutus), as well as dense populations of red-footed boobies (Sula sula) and lesser frigatebirds (Fregata ariel), breeding hawkesbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) and the endemic pygmy snake-eyed skink (Cryptoblecephalus eximius). Due to these features, BirdLife International declared the site an Important Bird Area.

Vatu-i-Ra Island is particularly special because of an enormously successful project by BirdLife International, NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, the Pacific Invasives Initiative, the Pacific Invasives Learning Network and the New Zealand Department of Conservation to eradicate invasive rats (Rattus exulans), which were having a negative impact on bird populations. The island was declared rat free in 2008 and the bird populations have boomed. Ever since, Sione Gonewai, leader of the traditional landowners from the Yavusa Nagilogilo, has been working courageously to try to get Fiji Government to protect this critically important bird breeding ground.

But now I saw their breeding habitat in tatters. There were dead birds in the trees and on the ground. Moreover, a boat of fishers pulled ashore and started building a fire with the dead branches.

“Have you been fishing?” I asked.

They replied yes. They had come from Tailevu and worked as a crew to sell fish to a middleman based in Rakiraki, who then vends his haul at Nausori market.

“Did you know that this area is protected?” I further questioned.

They claimed no. It is somewhat understandable, given that the communities only declared the island and the northern half of Vatu-i-Ra Reef tabu in March 2012 and the protected status has been little publicized. Sione was not happy, but he agreed to let them off without penalty if they consented to be interviewed for a documentary we are making to highlight the need for increased management across the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape.

Today’s encounters highlighted to me just how urgently this protection is needed. It appeared as if perhaps a quarter of the trees have already been lost. And it would not take much for an errant match to ignite all of the dry brush that has accumulated and burn down the remaining habitat.

“Do you like the birds?” I asked the fishermen.

“Yes,” they replied. “Where there are sea birds, there are fish.”

I hope that through our efforts and assistance we can help hasten the protection of this critical bird sanctuary and ensure the adjacent reefs are managed both to support the breeding populations of birds and the fishermen from all across Fiji who depend on fish for their livelihoods.

We will soon be kicking off a campaign to protect the biodiversity and livelihoods of people and ecosystems across the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. This project is being supported by the Waitt Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Stay tuned for more information to come.

Felled trunk and branches in the centre of Vatu-i-Ra Island

Felled trunk and branches in the centre of Vatu-i-Ra Island

A fishing boat from Tailevu pulls ashore

A fishing boat from Tailevu pulls ashore

A white-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus) at the top of the island

A white-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus) at the top of the island