FIFTY-three community members from four Coral Coast districts have been appointed by the Permanent Secretary of Fisheries as Honorary Fish Wardens for two years with powers to prevent and detect offences under the Fisheries Act and to enforce its provisions.
The fish wardens from Komave, Korolevu-i-wai, Koroinasau, and Conua districts are now authorised to approach people and board boats they believe are fishing to examine their catch, gear, and fishing licence or permit to detect fisheries offences.
If they suspect an offence has occurred, they can take the vessel, gear, catch, and offender to the police who can charge and prosecute if appropriate.
Trained last year by the Department of Fisheries, the wardens received their certificates on January 30, during a one-day capacity-building workshop in Vatuolalai Village with the Fisheries and Police, hosted by the Korolevu-i-wai Environment Committee and Reef Explorer.
The workshop was partially funded by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in the US to support capacity building activities for the fish wardens.
Jowasa Kuribola, the chairman of the Korolevu-i-wai district's Environment Committee, said the committee had been looking forward to having the fish wardens appointed as they would greatly enhance marine managment efforts by encouraging responsible fishing practices and addressing illegal fishing.
"Less than 10 per cent of the people in our district are aware of Fiji fisheries laws," Kuribola said.
"We need to create awareness about the Fisheries Act and use it along with our customary law to better manage our qoliqoli".
Sergeant Peni Baledrokadroka, the Community Policing Coordinator in Sigatoka, expressed concern that the public was not well informed about Fiji's fisheries laws and why they are important to the future of marine resources.
"We hope that fish wardens will help create awareness about fisheries laws and regulations in their communities," Sergeant Baledrokadroka said.
"Stakeholders must put politics aside and work in partnership to encourage compliance to and enforcement of the Fisheries Act and other legislation relevant to the preservation and protection of Fiji's natural resources."
Now 72-years-old, Sesilia Senimoli of Votua village has seen her qoliqoli decline over her lifetime and decided to become a fish warden in order to encourage and assist her family and vanua to better manage the qoliqoli.
"Though I am 72-years-old, I wanted to be a fish warden because I want my family and vanua to know we need to do more to look after our qoliqoli," Sesilia said.
"There were so many fish when I was young that if we caught a small one we'd let it go so it could grow bigger".
"We no longer have plenty of fish, octopus, and coral like before, and we must work together and stop overfishing our qoliqoli so it can provide for our future generations as it has for us," Sesilia added.
Overfishing is indeed a challenging issue that many communities in Fiji are now facing as fishing pressure continues to increase along with the demand for marine resources.
Fishing is regulated by Fiji's Fisheries Act, which outlines provisions that recognise customary fishing rights over traditional fishing grounds, ban destructive fishing practices, and set species and gear restrictions to keep small fish from being taken.
Mr. Kuribola said the fish wardens recognised the significant opportunity they have now to improve the management of the qoliqoli and were prepared to make good use of it.
"We have been waiting for this day for a long time and are ready to perform our duty as fish wardens," Mr. Kuribola said. "This is something we must do to protect our way-of-life and future generations".
nVictor Bonito is a coral reef ecologist and founder of Reef Explorer, a Fiji-based research and development company established to support community-based marine conservation effort in Fiji. Active in coral reef research and conservation efforts around the world for 14 years, Victor has a broad knowledge of coral reef ecosystems and a wealth of experience working with a spectrum of stakeholders on resource management issues.