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The 'seaweed' coast

Victor Bonito
Thursday, February 21, 2013

Coral reef ecosystems, and the diversity and abundance of animals and plants they support, have been an integral part of the way-of-life and survival of island communities since time immemorial. Today, Fiji's coral reefs continue to be heavily relied upon for subsistence, coastal protection, income generation, and to a large extent support our economy through the tourism industry.

However, all is not well below the turquoise waters of our island paradise. In many areas, including the Coral Coast where I live, the vibrant coral reefs and bountiful harvests of fish and other marine life they once provided are disappearing. Instead, a jungle of fleshy seaweed now covers the reef where corals once thrived and fish seem to get smaller and smaller as well as harder to catch.

If you sit and talanoa about fishing with elders living in Coral Coast villages, you will hear similar stories about the beautiful coral and abundance of big fish they once caught with ease in their traditional fishing grounds. It's an impressive story to hear — they could go out on the reef just in front of their village and catch a couple fish that were big enough to feed their family before a pot of cassava could boil.

However, if you leave your cassava on the fire while you go fishing today it is likely to be burnt long before you can return with enough fish to feed your family. In 2008, the catches of ladies from four Coral Coast villages fishing with hook and line in their traditional fishing grounds was recorded. After 1299 hours of fishing, the ladies averaged a mere 200 grams of fish caught per person per hour.

Not only are fish populations depleted, but abundance of beautiful coral that the Coral Coast was once renowned for is also largely gone. Reef surveys conducted in 2004, 2007, 2009, and 2011 in fished areas adjacent to eight Coral Coast villages show that the iconic Coral Coast is now a seaweed coast — only about 5 per cent of the reef is covered in coral now while a jungle of fleshy seaweeds blanket most of the inshore reef area.

This degradation of Coral Coast reefs is neither a natural phenomenon nor a trivial matter. Human impacts on these reefs have exceeded sustainable levels and are having dire consequences on the food security and livelihood opportunities of future generations.

Arguably overfishing, or harvesting marine life faster than it can replace itself, is one of the biggest local impacts on Coral Coast reefs. While many people may have the perception that the ocean is vast and has a limitless supply of fish and other tasty treats, this simply is not true and the evidence is right us.

The inshore reef area along much of the Coral Coast experiences what is perhaps some of the highest fishing pressure in Fiji. In 2012, two Coral Coast villages kept records of fishing pressure in their traditional fishing grounds (about 1 km2 each in size) and found that over the four-month study period there were at least 829 and 1027 fishing trips that took place totaling 2706 and 3862 person hours respectively. Our reefs are being fished to death.

In addition to measuring the amount of fish caught per person per hour, the status of fish populations can also be assessed by examining whether or not the fish that are being caught are of a size where they could have had a chance to reproduce already. If the large majority of fish being caught are smaller than reproductive size, then it is likely that the population is being overfished.

In the same 2008 study mentioned above, only about 20 per cent of the ladies' catch in each of the four fishing grounds were of reproductive size; this, along with the meager amount of fish caught by the ladies, indicates that overfishing is indeed a problem. Catch logbooks kept by Coral Coast communities in 2007 tell a similar story — over 60 per cent of the emperor fish and nearly 100 per cent of the snappers, two of the most commonly caught fishes, had not yet reached reproductive size indicating that their populations are dwindling.

* Victor is a coral reef ecologist and founder of Reef Explorer, a Fiji-based research and development company established to support community-based marine conservation efforts. He has a broad knowledge of coral reef ecosystems and a wealth of experience working with a spectrum of stakeholders on resource management issues.

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