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.
People 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.