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Treading a fine line

Matilda Simmons
Monday, February 12, 2018

IT'S a multi-million dollar industry that helps sustain the livelihood of many along the coastal villages of Macuata, in Vanua Levu. The fishing industry is perhaps the third largest resource industry in Fiji but is one that has its tentacles wrapped firmly around villages along these coastal areas.

When we visited the waters of Macuata on board the traditional vessel Uto ni Yalo, we were witness to many fishing boats out on the open sea carrying large quantities of fish and making its way towards Labasa, where the market is rife.

According to survey findings from the World Wide Fund for Nature Pacific, about $1.1 million worth of fish were caught from the Qoliqoli Cokovata on the Macuata fishing grounds in 2015. These fish were sold on Viti Levu.

The Tui Macuata, Wiliame Katonivere, said 80 per cent of the fish sold on Viti Levu were caught from Macuata waters.

It's a race for profitable business and one that has concerns over its sustainability.

In the early hours of a Friday morning last month while berthed off the coast of Naduri Village, we were awoken by the sound of a truck parked on the shore and sounds of laughter and talking.

Strewn all over the beach were bundles of fish of different varieties. But one that got much attention was the bumphead parrotfish.

The villagers got busy cleaning up the fish while a truck waited on the road side. The truck was owned by an Asian company based in Labasa. It travels to all the coastal villages to buy their fish every day.

"People can make up to $800 to $1000 a day," said Kaminieli Lelea of Naduri.

"There are some endangered fish that are not allowed to be caught but if some of the villagers sell it, the Asian company just buys it.

"There's an A grade fish that goes for $7 a kg, the B grade goes for $6 a kg and so on."

The father of five is the sole breadwinner in his family. The 55-year-old had just made $80 by selling a bundle.

The money was for his two children's pocket money when they return to Suva for school.

But he said many people were going out fishing and relying on the Asian company to earn an income.

"It's not like before where we can find the fish easily. Today, we have to travel further out to sea as many villagers along this coast are fishing."

While weighing the bumphead parrotfish, two men made $3309 from their catch which weighed a total 551.5kg — the fish was sold at $6 a kg).

The chiefly village is the traditional owner of the Great Sea Reef, the third longest continuous barrier reef in the southern hemisphere, and in between catching their fish, villagers have to balance what counts as income and what counts as sustainability.

According to WWF, the Great Sea Reef (GSR) is home to 55 per cent of known coral reef fish in Fiji (with a predicted actual value of 80 per cent), about 74 per cent of known corals found in Fiji and a total of 40 per cent of all known marine flora and fauna in Fiji.

"We are trying to conserve our fishing grounds by creating policies within our management community," said Ratu Wiliame, whose qoliqoli covers an inshore area of 1344 square kilometres, stretching from the mouth of the Dreketi River to Korotubu in Sasa and the islands of Kia and Mali.

"Previously, no account of fish caught was recorded. Everyone has to record how many fish they catch, and if they don't I won't reissue their fishing licence," he said.

"Another issue that is pervading our villages is undervaluing our natural resource. The villagers are not getting the real value of their fish because of the presence of middlemen and we hope to address this issue."

Other policies put in place by the chief include a ban on fishing on Sundays and fishermen are required to have a record of their catch.

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