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Future's in our hands

Victor Bonito
Friday, February 22, 2013

* Continued from yesterday.

Overfishing not only threatens populations of targeted species, but also contributes to the deterioration of the entire ecosystem. A very good example of this is the overgrowth of fleshy seaweeds on Coral Coast reefs in areas where colourful communities of corals once thrived.

As populations of reef fish that feed on fleshy seaweeds, known as herbivores, have been depleted the few fish remaining are no longer able to keep seaweeds grazed back so that corals can thrive. Some may ask how am I so sure about this?

Over the last decade, some communities on the Coral Coast have established tabu or no-take marine protected areas (MPAs) where customary bans on fishing have been placed to ensure a reproductive stock is maintained. Over the last eight years, coral and fish communities have been monitored inside four of these MPAs that have been relatively well-respected as well as outside the MPAs in the adjacent fished areas.

In 2004, fleshy seaweeds covered most of the reefs in both the fished areas and MPAs while coral covered less than 5 per cent of the reef. In 2011, coral still covered less than 5 per cent of the reef in the fished areas and fleshy seaweeds still dominate; however, in the four MPAs, coral now covers more than 50 per cent of the reef while fleshy seaweeds cover less than 5 per cent of the reef area they once did. On average, these four MPAs also now have 30 per cent more food fish, 45 per cent more species of food fish, and more than 400 per cent greater biomass (weight) of food fish per area compared to the adjacent areas where fishing activities have continued.

Just to be sure that the removal of seaweeds in the MPAs was indeed happening because herbivorous fish populations were recovering, I conducted experiments in 2010 and 2011 where I transplanted the six fleshy seaweeds that are most abundant in the fished areas into the MPAs to see if they were eaten. Indeed they were, and by using in-situ video cameras, I was able to determine after watching some 72 hours of video that two species of fish in particular, the blue-spine and orange-spine surgeonfish or ta and sila, were responsible for 95 per cent of the grazing I observed on these dominant seaweeds.

Ensuring a healthy reproductive stock of fish is maintained on our reefs is critical to not only the long-term sustainability of our inshore fisheries, but also to maintaining the integrity of the ecosystem. We can all help ensure that future generations will continue to benefit from coral reefs as we have by respecting no-take bans established as fisheries management tools, and by ensuring that we are not taking fish before they have had a chance to reproduce and replace themselves.

The future is literally in our hands — the question is whether or not we will acknowledge the issues in time and rise to the occasion to ensure Fiji's glorious coral reefs continue to provide for future generations as they have for time immemorial.

n Victor 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 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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