Village representatives enhance communication for conservation

Ecosystems are linked, so what happens in one place can have an impact elsewhere. For example, the health and resilience of coral reef ecosystems may be affected by the clearing and burning of forest in coastal catchments. To promote an integrated approach to the management of terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems, WCS is facilitating a collaborative planning process with communities in districts across the province of Bua.

Each village in Vuya and Dama has nominated 3 or 4 representatives (including a young person and a women’s rep) to take part in district management planning workshops. Their role is to raise awareness in the village and facilitate the input of local people in order to build the understanding, consensus and support required for community-led management. As well as identifying strategies for their management plan, workshops in October included communication and facilitation training to help them fulfill their role.

Seaweb, experts in the use of communications science for community-led conservation, introduced key theories and tools for participants to distill and convey fundamental messages to different target audiences. We explored how villagers process, retain and apply new concepts and how communication can appeal to the heart as well as the head to affect motivations and realize change. Participants were highly engaged and there was plenty of constructive feedback as they demonstrated how they would feedback to different groups. The consensus was that oral and visual messages are more effective than written information and that the status of the person delivering a message can be as important as the message itself.

It was great to see teamwork developing among village representatives as they identified who would deliver messages to different groups. I was even more encouraged to see different villages discussing structural barriers to communication, such as the lack of representation at village meetings or dysfunctional village sub-committees. Some went beyond encouragement and advice to offer practical support, with representatives from two villages discussing tactics for using traditional ties to influence key decision makers.

Village representatives connect top-down and bottom-up processes for effective ecosystem-based management, providing the vital link between district-level planning and village-level implementation. Working with Seaweb, we will continue to focus on understanding and enhancing local communication networks for better outcomes in Bua. With my appetite whetted, watch this space for upcoming research into social networks and communication as well as rolling out communications training through district representatives on the Bua Yaubula Management Support Team.

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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.

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



A village with a lot to offer

I recently helped facilitate a workshop in Vuya village, about 5km from the port of Nabouwalu (in Bua Province on the south-west of Vanua Levu). Having met people from Vuya at various workshops over the past year, I was always impressed with their enthusiasm for conservation and their organized approach. I had seen their Village Development Plan, heard about their projects and am also developing a research proposal with Brooke McDavid, a Peace Corps volunteer based in the village. It’s fair to say I was excited to be visiting and keen to find out more.

After the traditional ceremony (sevusevu) to introduce ourselves and ask for acceptance, our guide Mateo showed us around. With a chiefly bure at its centre, the village rises up a hillside overlooking the Vatu-i-Ra Passage, a hot-spot for cetaceans and an important breeding ground for the endangered humpback whale. As well as taking in great views, our tour included a detailed explanation of local challenges and insight into why and how a range of recently established projects were developed, including: a local marine protected area; a mangrove nursery and replanting site; and vegetable gardens dotted around the village.

Chickens are the animal with which the Vuya villagers traditionally associate and they are not supposed to cook or eat them. They recently built an impressive commercial chicken coup (selling the eggs and using the waste as fertilizer) and we awoke each morning to the sound of roosters.

As we drank kava in the hall each evening, villagers wanted to find out more about what is happening around the province. They shared experiences with visitors from across Bua and expressed interest in working together. Maria and Tupi, two ladies from the village development committee, requested to attend and made great contributions to the workshop. Jaoti, a local farmer, sought interest in forming a local cooperative with an emphasis on sustainable farming methods.

We’ll certainly miss Vuya and its people (if not the rooster alarm clock). Their input will be essential to developing an effective district-level management plan and I hope we can return some day.

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