Supporting businesswomen as drivers of change

WCS is supporting business women in the province of Bua and the district of Wailevu in Cakaudrove Province. Our recent workshop, held in Naruwai village in the district of Dama (Bua Province) targeted rural women running businesses that promote sustainable use of natural resources. The aim was to help develop their business skills and support networks.

A total of 30 women participated from across all 9 districts in Bua. Starting with limited business knowledge, they were soon defining business goals, identifying challenges and considering how to overcome them. Several were involved in a cooperative producing mats and other products from bamboo spike sedge, the fine-stemmed freshwater reed known locally as kuta. Kuta weaving is a traditional skill of women in Bua and they were motivated to pass this onto the next generation as well as earning income. Others were producing honey, coconut oil (sinusinu) and virgin coconut oil, jewelry, eggs and handicrafts made from pandanus and coconut frond.

Having gained in confidence and more clearly defined what their business is and how they can make it profitable, they targeted further training to address specific needs for marketing and business planning.

I was greatly inspired by these ladies and hope to help grow their businesses, which will in turn help address local poverty, stop unsustainable exploitation of local natural resources and directly support community projects. I also hope to support their engagement in community management planning in their districts. They certainly have the skills and motivation required to drive positive change!

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Vinaka vakalevu to the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Flora Family Foundation for supporting this work.

Where, oh where, has my sea cucumber gone?

World Oceans Day, June 8, 2013

“Did you see any sea cucumbers?” I asked Ron as he struggled to get back aboard the inflatable tender.


“What about you, Wili?” I questioned.

He simply shook his head.

Day after day as we are being towed around the inner and outer reef systems of the Yasayasamoala Group of the Lau Islands, we are coming up with zeros on our data sheets. It’s disappointing work.

In the meantime, tin drying racks in the villages of Totoya and Matuku islands have been full of the critters. So far, Wili Saladrau, from Fiji Department of Fisheries, recorded over 700 individual sea cucumber (in the dried form called “bêche-de-mer”). This includes over 60 Holothuria fuscogilva (white teatfish) that can sell for over US$50 (FJ$100) a piece to specialty buyers in Fiji.

So are the local fishers just better at finding the sea cucumbers? Probably. If I was getting paid that much money per individual harvested, I’m sure that I would “get my eye in” much quicker in order to be able to spot them on the reef. But still, the densities of sea cucumber populations are running dangerously low.

Wili, Ron Vave of the University of the South Pacific, and I were asked by the Lau Provincial Office to do an assessment of the status of sea cucumber populations during the Living Oceans Foundation Fiji expedition throughout the Lau island group. Bêche-de-mer is a major source of income to coastal communities in Lau, but there is concern that the populations are on the precipice of collapse.

Serial depletion of sea cucumbers has occurred throughout the world to feed a growing middle class market in Asia, hungry for bêche-de-mer. While bêche-de-mer have been traded for at least 1000 years, the value of the catch has increased enormously over the past two to three decades as species are exploited and crash, thus becoming rarer commodities.

Sea cucumbers are long, tubular benthic echinoderms (in the same phylum as sea urchins) belonging to the class Holothuroidae. They were once found in most temperate and tropic benthic habitats worldwide, ranging from shallow intertidal areas to the deep sea. The majority of sea cucumbers move across the seafloor ingesting detritus and other reef gunk, thus cleaning the sediments and potentially reducing the spread of harmful algae. Because they can grow to be quite large, and many are conspicuously shaped and coloured, sea cucumbers are extremely vulnerable to fishing. In addition, population recovery is hampered by their slow growth rates and long time to reach maturity. Furthermore, when populations become too sparse and sea cucumbers cannot sense other individuals of the same species, they will fail to breed, resulting in local population collapse.

There is general lack of awareness of these population dynamics in Fiji. Although use of SCUBA for fishing is prohibited under the Fiji Fisheries Act, the Fiji Department of Fisheries has been issuing exemptions to traders. These middlemen supply local community members with gear and possibly some training if they are lucky – and then the race is on to catch the last of the sea cucumbers. Young men are diving 50, 60, 70, and sometimes over 80 m to find the remaining individuals from high value species. They are dying fairly regularly. Others are suffering debilitating side effects from the bends. I met one man during surveys in western Bua Province in November 2012 who was relegated to growing watermelons after becoming incapacitated from diving related injuries.

In Lau, most of the fishers are free diving, but apparently they are quite talented and can easily reach depths between 20-30 m. Most fishers that we have interviewed so far are happy with the status of the sea cucumber fishery as they are fetching high prices and the money covers household expenses, church contributions, and higher education fees for children, as well as offers the ability to purchase some luxury items. But few of the fishers seem aware that the good fortune may soon run out. What will happen then when there are few other options for earning income out in these remote islands?

There may be potential for populations to recover if management action is taken now. It likely will not be sufficient to set up locally managed marine areas with a few no-take areas. The sea cucumbers are already so widely dispersed that they may already be unable to reproduce. More active management may be required. This could entail finding wild caught individuals and placing them in close proximity to one another within pens in the no-take areas to encourage their reproduction and dispersal of their larvae into the open areas that everyone can access to fish. This strategy should optimally be coupled with minimum size limits so that people do not remove all of the young sea cucumbers before they reach maturity.

In honor of World Oceans Day, I ponder these issues in order to raise hope by coming up with creative solutions. Over the next few years, the Wildlife Conservation Society and other members of the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area network aim to try out several different types of management with communities to see what works, what doesn’t work, and why. Ideally we want local communities to have a better understanding of sustainable extraction rates so that they will be able to maintain livelihood benefits into the future.

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Yavirau! Koro style

Although as the petrel flies, Koro Island is not geographically far from the capital, it is not easy to get there. Didi and Wise on our team beat down giant swells and high winds to bring our boats on the 65 km crossing from Savusavu. Meanwhile, the rest of us took the Lomaiviti Princess from Suva, which dropped anchor at the Koro jetty sometime in the middle of the night. We were bleary-eyed and confused as we hopped on a carrier that disgorged us an hour up the road and onto the floors of two families’ houses to try to squeeze in some last minutes of shut-eye as the roosters cackled and the sun slowly crept over the horizon.

Yavirau! Koro StylePeople from Tuatua village believe that this area (including the villages of Nasau and Nacimake) was the place of original settlement on Koro Island, as people fled from some natural disaster, possibly a tsunami, on Motoriki located south of Ovalau. We shared many of these stories after our formal presentation of a tabua (sperm whale’s tooth) to signify our serious intentions for our upcoming fieldwork.

WCS is continuing our investigation to uncover the impacts of opening tabu (locally managed fisheries closures). We recognize that it is highly unlikely that coastal communities in Fiji will keep portions of their traditionally managed fisheries closures permanently closed to fishing. But we have also observed that there are increasing pressures to turn to tabu areas for quick income when money is needed to pay provincial levies, school fees, church fees or buy communal goods for the village. We are trying to assess how much can safely be extracted from a tabu area, given its size and history, without fully compromising its ability to provide fish and invertebrates for the future.

The people of Koro have graciously welcomed us to help them better manage their island and coastal fisheries. Our plan is to conduct a short harvest in Tuatua village, followed by a longer, more intensive harvest in Nakodu village.

Tuatua is where the Tui Koro (high chief of Koro resides), but Tuatua itself was without a village chief when we arrived. The Native Land and Fisheries Commission visited during our stay with the VKB, a registry of all iTaukei (indigenous Fijians) to trace the lineages and identify the next successor to be installed. Perhaps it was due to this gap in leadership that the Tuatua tabu had been consistently opened every quarter over the past year, with even an extra opening for a recent church function. Or perhaps it was because the local managers had not received any recent advice of the consequences of too frequent harvests. Whatever the reason, the impacts were obvious. Compared with the adjacent areas open to fishing, the Tuatua tabu appeared fairly devoid of fish life.

This observation was backed up during the yavirau (fish drive). Four times, women and men from the village spread out their gill net in a semi-circle in the tabu lagoon during low tide. At the call of “Yavi!” people swam towards the net, driving the terrified fish toward their ultimate capture. Gills nets are highly non-selective – any unlucky fish caught within the vicinity of the net could potentially be caught if it does not divert its trajectory.  But after 3 hours of the drive, the total haul was only 191 fish, with very few larger than 30 cm

By contrast, our first dives in the Nakodu tabu area showed much higher densities of fish that were highly unwary of us invading humans. One little grouper (Epinephelus merra) was so tame that I caught it with my bare hand! On the second day of the yavirau, the community brought in over 1500 fish from just 3 hours of effort. The weight of the haul was so large that it almost capsized the Adi Lase Bula, one of our boats. It was then a long, tiring afternoon for our team of Margy, Wise, Yashika, Akuila, Didi and Jordan, a PhD student from University of Western Australia working with us, to measure and identify all the fish.

What was the difference between the two villages’ tabu? Nakodu village has kept its tabu closed since its establishment in 2010, despite calls from family in Suva and overseas to open for Christmas feasts. Furthermore, the community had their own motivations for a harvest with an upcoming Methodist Church function for which they needed to gather enough food to feed all participants. The people of Nakodu were ecstatic with the results. They could see for themselves that their patience had paid off for an occasion where they really needed the extra food.

But questions remain. Did they take too much? How long will it take for the tabu to recover and when can they harvest again? Over the next few months, we will be busy analyzing our data to help provide some answers with the hope that we can provide better recommendations about the duration that tabu areas need to stay closed in order to provide an adequate amount of short-term gains without compromising long-term food security. Stay tuned for more answers. Moce mada.

This work is kindly supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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Village adventures in Vuya

Accompanied by the BYMST (Bua Yaubula Management Support Team) Coordinator and the Assistant Roko Tui, we received a warm welcome and a big bowl of kava as we arrived for the first time in Vuya Village. This was the start of a week of village workshops across the district of Vuya, at the southern tip of the province of Bua. It was also an early step in a process to help develop an ecosystem-based management plan for the district, supporting communities to work together for sustainable management of their natural resources.

We had been well briefed by Brooke, a locally-based Peace Corps volunteer, so knew the village had already developed a management plan and delivered some impressive projects (including its recently-established mangrove nursery!). Attended by 38 local men and women, the workshop identified ways they can build on their plan and achieve even more.

Our plans to visit Navave were scuppered by unforeseen circumstances, so next stop was Nabouwalu Village, overlooking the jetty that takes people and goods (including truckloads of taro) to and from Viti Levu. Presentations, discussions and conceptual modeling explored the threats to local ecosystems and strategies through which these might be addressed. More kava followed as we talked and got to know each other into the night.

Finally we arrived in Wairiki Village, the chiefly home of our companion Akuila Qio Turaganiqali, the BYMST Coordinator. Workshop participants showed great enthusiasm to learn more in order to safeguard their resources for future generations. The local development agenda includes major road building, mining, commercial forestry and development of Nabouwalu into a town – so there are plenty of challenges and opportunities.

The icing on the cake was lunch at Wairiki, where villagers prepared a feast of the highly poisonous moray eel to test me. Knowing the traditional ties from my mother’s side (Kavula village) to the natives of Wairiki, I was torn over whether to tuck into this dish with its potentially lethal effects. I trusted my instincts and took the advice of my trusted colleague Didi, who said that ‘if the flesh is as white as milk; there is no reason to refuse.’ It was a great relief to finish the bowl and I must say that it was a memorable and tasty meal!

We are already looking forward to returning, working with our new friends and enjoying many more bowls of kava.

[Editor’s note: While KK survived his moray meal unscathed, a man from Nakodu village was not so lucky recently where the WCS Marine Team were working to assess the impacts of harvests from tabu areas.]

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Cetacean conservation in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape

Having left freezing Germany, Chantal Denise Pagel is adapting to the tropical heat as she brings her specialist knowledge to a voluntary internship with us here in Fiji. Chantal is a Masters student with a special interest in big ocean mammals, known as cetaceans, and will help apply some of the research we have undertaken on cetaceans in recent years. Her role is to ensure the integration of cetaceans within district and provincial management planning processes, to raise awareness of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape (between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu) as an important Whale Sanctuary and to help develop special management measures to improve conservation of cetaceans here in the future.

Chantal is particularly interested in the Oceania subpopulation of the endangered Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Humpbacks were spotted by the WCS team at several locations within the Vatu-i-Ra Channel, with the high abundance of mother-calf-pairs highlighting the importance of this passage for the species.

A range of other baleen and toothed whales are also found and Chantal has already encountered some of them on her first excursion in Fiji waters. “I was lucky to meet a pod of spinner dolphins on my very first day-trip, to Moon Reef off the coast of Tailevu. Jay, our local guide, knew them individually and his insight into each one was incredible.” She explained. “My previous experience with spinners in Mauritius had taught me that marine ecotourism isn’t always sustainable – tourist swimmers had chased and harassed the dolphins in search of a ‘personal experience’ to ‘take back home’. I was relieved to find the spinners here were relaxed as the boat approached, they were obviously happy in our company and looked in good condition.”

In her new role, Chantal has created a presentation for our upcoming village workshops in the province of Bua. “It explains what cetaceans are, what species occur in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape and the growing threats they face from pollution, fishing, shipping and climate change.”

WCS will also be gathering local stories about whales and dolphins from villagers. “I’m looking forward to finding out about their experiences and the special relationship with the ‘Tovuto’ which apparently has great cultural significance for Fijians.” Chantal explained. “I’m so happy to be learning and contributing to conservation here in Fiji.”

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