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Protecting marine resources

Alumeci Nakeke
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Protecting and improving Fiji's marine resources is an issue often neglected except by conservationists who are eager to make a change.

It's this change that has made it possible for Fiji to protect nearly half of its inshore fisheries which about 50 per cent of the population depend on.

Fiji is lucky to have a handful of organisations who work hard so that Fiji could one day become a model for other countries on the state of its marine resources.

While some countries in the world are looking for ways to protect their ocean and food security, Fiji seems to be doing well because it is already halfway there through its marine protected areas.

Its tradition, in the sense of local knowledge, is what has made conservation efforts in Fiji unusual from most countries in the world. Conservationists believe that such knowledge could be strengthened by its link to the field of science which in the end could help decision makers make wiser management.

This has prompted Conservation International Fiji to embark on a project which involves sending a group of scientists to visit villages to explore and collect data on its MPAs or taboo areas. Data and facts collected would then be compiled and used for reference whenever questions arise on MPAs, instead of different versions being misinterpreted of the site from different scientists.

Well known American scientist and Boston University Marine Program and professor of Biology Les Kaufman has been in Fiji to talk with Fiji Locally Marine Managed Area partners identifying potential research needs that Fiji has for better designing of its Marine Protected Areas (MPA) in the long run.

"Fiji could be a model for other countries on the state of its marine protected areas but first it had to succeed. And in order to succeed people have to change their attitude in how they dump their rubbish, look after their forests and in other harmful habits because it affects the ocean," he said.

He said Fiji was on the upsurge of development in tourism and agriculture so it had to have a management plan for the protection of its forests otherwise the land will fall into the ocean.

But everything does not look too bleak for Fiji as it has been found to be resilient especially to global warming.

"Fiji has been very fortunate because it has already proven by the reef system and the fish. They have already demonstrated that they are tough. In the year 2000 there was a huge bleaching here and the corals expelled the algae and a lot of them died. And it is fortunate to be here not too long after that and see how it's coming back," he said.

"It is astounding how quickly regeneration has occurred, in fact a friend of mine was here before and he went back to the same spot just after that and now several years later. Because we have data from many places in Fiji we could say, 'hey, this place comes back' and if we had the same experiment in Jamaica or the Bahamas we wouldn't have such a happy ending. So if this will not work anywhere it will work here," he said.

Furthermore, he said, if we succeed Fiji will be a model for other countries but he was afraid that it would not be like they had invented some new high tech devise that never existed before.

"Instead, it is really just trying to substantiate very ancient wisdom that I do not really know what the system was, in past centuries. Then, it did not really matter as much because there was plenty and the mistake was not that much compared to now. Now we are hanging on to the very last bits and any mistake has devastating consequences."

Fiji had been selected as one of four countries to be part of a major project on the international study of marine managed areas (MMAs) which began in 2007 and will end in 2009

Professor Kaufman said the project was just to enhance the work of Fiji Locally Managed Marine Areas partners specifically to join the collaboration of the villagers and listen to questions that they have and to explain concerns on individual things to watch out for.

"The scientists who are coming from outside of the village then agree on ways of answering the questions so they can quote labels," he said.

They have a team collecting data that started at Navakavu in Muaivuso which has a tabu area with nearby a village that does not have one.

"It was also amusing because we were comparing a non-tabu area with other villages. The village with no tabu area asked to have one but we do not tell them it's bad for our experiment - we help them. They then ask how big it has to be, and also very basic questions and actually not very easy to answer."

He said in Fiji the first place they wanted to help or support was at village level, because of all babies supplied to other habitats about 99.9 per cent will probably come from Fiji.

And in Fiji, it has been found one island helps another or supply food for the other because of its connectivity. From what they will learn from this project they hope to supply useful guidance for the federal government on how to look at the emerging network of the LMMA and where investment is needed.

"In the context of the whole project, Fiji is very unusual because we do not have anything new to tell Fiji on the basic approach of protecting the sea because it is already there," he said.

"Its problem is to actually do it, so our only interest in Fiji is help demonstrate that this thing can work in a place where it is already halfway there because of the tradition.

"When we worked in Belize, it is such a different situation. Their endemic culture was subdued many centuries ago and they were never big on the sea anyway. They do not have those traditions. We are starting from scratch and it is really fun to go before a committee in Belize and say 'here look at Fiji, they are remembering something they had figured out a long time ago'."

He said it was easy to go to the villages because the most immediate way was the regular "sevusevu" or traditional approach of presenting yaqona.

"We get to know these people and we have some trust and the next couple of days the turaga ni koro (village headman) comes out on the boat with us and it is very neat so that is one way of direct communication.

"Fiji should be proud of what it has - the marine life is unusually beautiful and unique and the second thing, prognosis for Fiji is excellent so they should know that the system is diverse, resilient and proven on several occasions in the past 20 years. When devastating problems of one sort or another afflicted the reefs and mangroves they bounce back so we know that capability is there but it has to be protected because it could slip through our fingers very quickly."

To protect its ocean and coral reefs he said Fiji should protect its vast native forest or it could be reforested with mahogany or other trees so the land does not end up in the ocean.

"The problem of siltation is everywhere but it is not as bad as they could be in Fiji because it could have been worse so we are catching it in time to may be prevent Fiji from going the way the Caribbean has," he said.

"We cannot stop global warming and Fiji is not a major cause of it but we can get ready for it and I hope that the Fijian people also make a huge noise to the rest of the world that they are not the quiet victim of everybody's carelessness because that can help."

He said he was also worried that there will be many little battles and we were going to lose many of them because of things we could not have prevented like global warming or just some fishing boat that steals in at the dark of night and takes all the sharks out and other problems.

"We have to be able to look past that and see the whole picture and hopefully at that level we are doing okay and it's refreshing to come to Fiji and there is coral and fish everywhere although not so many big fish," he said.

However, the dumping of rubbish especially plastic was another problem and one of the areas affected was the harbour between Suva and Navakavu.

"We drove the boat through long trains of plastic. They hang up on the corals and if you get down at 80 feet you will see plastic. It smothers the coals and it's ugly and a waste," said Professor Kaufman.

"That's part of the sea and it's an indication that there could be much worse things dissolved in the water that are also coming out. So will the sedimentary after a rain storm in the summer.

"These are things that we have to get under control - the onus cannot be totally on the villagers. It is not all their fault, it is not under their control. Fiji is becoming an industrialised country very quickly so it needs to do it in a way that other countries have not.

"The United States got away with murder literally and figuratively they destroyed native culture and native forest and just in the nick of time some survived. Fiji does not have that luxury but they have natural assets so we have to protect them and there needs to be some plan in black and white that says here is the amount of forest that we need, to make sure our water will be pure and our coastlines will be healthy. And no one is going to take that away and the cost of failing to put that into place is incalculable.

"What we could do is to have an army of people constantly cleaning the beaches if we want to have eco-tourism

"Plastic may not be really dangerous for the sea turtles but you would not have tourists so think of how much money you will save by not throwing that junk away. Similarly if periodic rainstorm flushes sediments out of rivers and kill off swats of reefs that could be kilometres of coastline, there is no point of putting a beach resort."

But it is hoped that with the study and application of marine managed areas science it will increase knowledge of conservation needs of marine ecosystems and their human counterparts.

Ms Nakeke is a Ocean Science Reporter with SeaWeb. SeaWeb is a non government organisation that helps the media promote a healthy ocean.

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