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Protecting a marine reserve

Tevita Vuibau
Thursday, December 13, 2012

A HIGH speed chase on the high seas, poachers, and a fight to protect a fishing reserve — it all seems like something out of a movie.

But that exact sequence of events unfolded in the Namena Marine Reserve late last month as resort owners fought back against the poachers plundering the reserve for their own selfish means.

Located on the island of Namenalala off the coast of Kubulau in Bua, Moody's Namena Eco-Resort is surrounded by approximately 70km of pristine reef known as the Namena Marine Reserve.

The Kubulau bose vanua established the reserve as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in 1997 to discourage the commercial overfishing and illegal poaching which at the time were decimating food fish populations for the 10 local villages.

On November 24 at 10pm, Moody's Namena Eco-Resort manager Nigel Simpson heard the sounds of a familiar engine and spotted the poachers' flashlights on the Namena barrier reef.

Previous attempts to catch poachers by Mr Simpson and the three fish wardens employed at the resort proved futile, but their efforts were rewarded that night.

He contacted his brother Captain Rodney Simpson — manager of L'Aventure Divers at Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort in Savusavu.

Captain Simpson then contacted officer Gus Billings and at 11pm they started the one-hour trip out to Namena with five deckhands and officers on board the 32ft dive boat, Marama ni Wasa.

Officer Billings said as the Marama ni Wasa approached the reef, the poachers, thinking it might be another poaching vessel, remained in the water with their SCUBA gear and spear guns.

Only when Captain Simpson came alongside the open punt did the poachers realise what was happening.

"They quickly pulled their catch aboard and took off, leaving one of their men under water," officer Billings said.

The two boats then set off on a high speed chase around the reserve with the poachers eventually caught at 12.30 am.

Officer Billings said they were going at such speed that no one could brace themselves, they were only hanging on for dear life, legs flailing.

Captain Simpson pointed out that the force of the waves actually broke the railings on the bow of the Marama ni Wasa.

After an exhaustive search, the poacher who had been abandoned at sea was recovered, trying to swim for shore.

He was the captain, although he had no licence and the boat was not registered. Additionally, none of the men were licensed to SCUBA dive.

All from Suva, they had been operating this black-market fish business for more than a year, based out of Nabouwalu.

That night alone they had caught three 5ft humphead wrasse — an extremely rare and valuable fish at that size — and had an additional tub full of smaller reef fish and beche-de-mer.

According to officer Billings, one of the poachers admitted that this was his third trip out to Namena in three weeks.

"Every member was fined $70, but more importantly their boat and $30,000 worth of gear was confiscated — effectively ending their operation," officer Billings said.

That worried officer Billings, who said, "We know how important this place is to tourism and to the economy. It is also such a precious natural resource and it's wonderful that the people of Kubulau are working to protect it. We want to make sure it stays this way.

"The best part for me was that at 6am the morning after we'd caught them, their captain called me to apologise," he said.

"They knew what they'd done was wrong," officer Billings said.

"He was a boy from Lau and he was the one who had been left in the water when they took off on a high speed chase.

"We hope this will send a message to other poachers. News travels fast.

"Unfortunately, we know that the Christmas season is coming up and other poachers may start to get bold. People are looking for extra money and Namena is known as a source of great fish.

"We hope to be able to get our police boat out in the water so that we can make sure they know we are watching and they can't get away with this," he said.

As Captain Simpson points out, "It's a very difficult job to supervise the reserve. If you were on the boat that night, you'd agree, it's a life or death situation.

"We need to work together and improve our communication with the community. I'm very thankful we can all protect this unique place," he said.

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