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Recently, I had the privilege of accepting an Early Career Conservationist award from the Society for Conservation Biology at their biennial congress held this year in Montpellier, France. In preparing for my acceptance speech, I spent some time reflecting back on how I came to be working for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Fiji on ridge to reef management issues.
One might say that I had some fairly inauspicious beginnings as a conservationist. When I was twelve year old, I asked my parents if I could paint a rainforest meets reef mural on my bedroom wall. They surprisingly said yes, not wanting to stifle my burgeoning artistic talent.
But this is where I made my first blunder as a conservationist. Growing up near Boston, I hadn’t really visited any rainforests or reefs, and in these pre-internet days, I drew inspiration for our trusty World Book Encyclopaedia for images of different tropical birds and reef fish. What I ended up with was an ecologist’s nightmare with scarlet macaws from the Amazon, sulphur crested cockatoos from Australia, and toucan from the Neotropics living in my forest, while my reef was inhabited with Caribbean and Indo-Pacific species cavorting together.
My second real conservation blunder came when I joined the U.S. Peace Corps and was assigned to be a rural fisheries extension officer in Gabon, Central Africa, where I spent two and half year teaching rural farmers how to raise non-native tilapia. What I learned about these fish was what makes them such successful aquaculture species also makes them very successful invaders in other systems.
This really hit home when I moved to Fiji when I started working for WCS in 2008, first as an Associate Conservation Scientist and then as the Fiji Program Director in 2009. The first paper that I published using Fiji data showed 2 factors strongly associated with lower species richness and abundance of native freshwater fish species: loss of forest cover and presence of non-native tilapia.
After WCS put out a press release on the findings, the trouble really started. Who would have thought that these fish that I raised myself would nearly get me kicked out of the country? A Fiji journalist somehow misquoted me saying that I called tilapia “aquatic cockroaches” and the Fiji Government threatened to revoke my work permit because “tilapia are here to stay”.
A big lesson that we learned from this experience is that correlation does not equal causation. The lead author Aaron Jenkins and I had to make abundantly clear in an editorial to the Fiji Times that we were not implying that tilapia were killing native fish, merely that their presence is associated with the decline. Moreover, we agreed that tilapia can be a very good aquaculture fish where it has already established. We were only suggesting keeping it out of near pristine systems where it had not yet invaded. After much kava drinking with Fisheries Department staff, we were allowed to stay in Fiji, much to my great relief.
But fortunately, my time in Peace Corps in Gabon taught me how to deal with adversity and unexpected challenges. We actually used the results from this study as one of the cornerstones in communicating with local communities why it is important to manage ridge to reef systems holistically. At meetings in rural villages to discuss the rationale for integrated management, I actually saw grown men and women well up in tears when they realized that the forestry and farming practices they were involved with were potentially affecting the very food and water that they need for their families’ survival.
Over the past seven years, I have spent several months a year living and working in remote villages in Fiji to help local communities to design integrated management plans and better understand the effectiveness of their management actions. This has really been the most rewarding part about my job. I fell in love with working with local communities while living in Gabon, and it has been amazing to me what local people can accomplish with a vision and dedication to conservation and management.
As such, while it was a great honour to be recognized by the Society for Conservation Biology for my work in Oceania, in truth I have mostly just been a conduit for delivering information to local communities and governments faced with tough decisions about managing a myriad of threats affecting their biodiversity and livelihoods. It has been a privilege to interact with these decision makers in Fiji and across the Pacific who are the true champions of biodiversity and stewards of the Earth’s resources.