By Sangeeta Mangubhai
Coral reefs are found in more than 80 developing countries and are critical for the food and economic needs of some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. Those of us that are scientists or conservationists from developing countries are acutely aware that our reefs are some of the most threatened on the planet and a large weight and responsibility lies on our shoulders to do something about it. But to do that we need to be connected to places beyond our own, and find inspiring highly collaborative people we can work with to help do good applied science that contributes to the protection and better management of our reefs.
As we gathered at the 13th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS), I wanted to reach out to Fijian scientists and conservation practitioners to hear their views and thoughts on attending the symposium and learn more about their work. I wanted to understand why is attending ICRS so important to them?
Many told me they wanted the opportunity to share their work and have their voices heard by their international peers. They wanted to make new connections, learn about others work and find new collaborations. Some said they hoped by attending ICRS they might find opportunities to do Masters or a PhD overseas so that they get access to universities with labs with the latest technology, and have a competitive advantage when finding work in their own countries.
I asked them what their favourite thing was about ICRS and their responses were:
“Networking and meeting people whose papers I’ve read and listening in to some of their talks, and rethinking my own ideas and perceptions” – Ron Vave, Fijian scientist studying at University of Hawaii
“The chance to interact with a wide range of people from different backgrounds, working in different areas, with different opinions. Feels like a breath of fresh air being able to ‘get out’ of my own little space.” – Steven Lee, Fijian scientist at Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Ecology (ZMT) and University of Bremen in Germany
Asked what they learnt at ICRS that they would be applying back in their home countries, their answers were:
“Moving away from traditional fishing methods has affected the resilience of people and their resources. I would like to see how we can better incorporate traditional knowledge into locally managed marine areas.” – Yashika Nand, Fijian coral scientist at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji
“Quality rather than quantity may be a better approach for conservation of resource management work e.g. rather than having a whole string of Marine Protected Areas which you are trying to manage, it may be more beneficial to choose just a couple and invest more into them. Let the neighbouring communities see firsthand the benefits and convince themselves of it rather than trying to convince them.” – Steven Lee, Fijian scientist at ZMT and University of Bremen
And lastly, I asked them what they would like to see more of at the next ICRS and they answered:
“I would like to see more managers and conservation practitioners at ICRS. We need to bridge the gap between scientists and decision makers” – Margaret Fox, Fijian social scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society
“I recommend that talks be audio and/or video recorded, and made available online. We can’t be in all places at once so it’d be good to listen or watch talks that we missed. And it would be great to have days in which, rather than talking to just ourselves we have sessions where we talk to the public.” – Ron Vave, Fijian scientist studying at University of Hawaii
From my side, my personal request would be to see greater diversity of people on different panel discussions. If ICRS is truly an international symposium then there has to be more representation from developing countries on those panels so we can hear different perspectives. And our panels should not just be scientists – instead, we should mix it up and have conservation practitioners and government representatives present too. And for a change, perhaps we could hear the voice of our youth, to listen to their ideas and thoughts about the future of coral reefs. Without this diversity, we are not going to get very far finding those innovative solutions we need to save the world’s coral reefs.