Why fish matter

Former Miss Hibiscus and Miss South Pacific, Mere Nailatikau. Picture: SUPPLIED/cChange

IN Fiji, fish are far more than just a meal, says former Miss Hibiscus and Miss South Pacific, Mere Nailatikau.

“For me, what fish really means is togetherness, being able to sit around a table, however small or large and being able to talk to one another, to spend time together, to share stories,” said Mere.

And the fish itself is usually part of the stories told.

“It’s very rare that you won’t hear in a conversation around the dinner table, where people won’t talk about where the fish came from, the community it is from. More often than not, it’s someone who is known to the family.

“There’s usually a special place where people prefer to go and purchase their fish. So you get a sense of connection not only through your meal but also the place where that fish came from,” she said.

But the story doesn’t stop there. People also like to talk, sometime debate, just how to prepare different fish.

“For instance, some like it pan-fried with tomatoes, onions and other trimmings, or maybe freshly curried or boiled and serve with miti (coconut milk), lemon juice and chillies.

“People have very strong feelings about how they prefer their fish,” says Mere, laughing.

And the fish that is No. 1 for most, is kawakawa and donu, a family of A-grade fish called grouper in English.

But this year, the Government of Fiji banned the fishing of these fish during their peak breeding months, June through September, because the much loved fish are rapidly disappearing.

In 30 years, fish landings dropped 70 per cent for these fish on Vanua Levu, according to one study.

Another study showed 80 per cent of Fiji’s known breeding grounds for these fish are either dead or unhealthy.

That’s why the ban was needed. The goal is to let the fish release their eggs each year, and let them restock Fiji’s reefs.

And the loss of these fish to her family’s traditions, and Fiji’s way of life, is why Mere has stepped up as the newest champion the 4FJ campaign, which is asking people from all walks of life to forego these fish during their peak breeding months.

The 4FJ campaign has secured more than 19,000 pledges to date.

And what’s made the campaign so successful is the long list of local champions who go out to talk about the need to revive the fish. Because people like Mere are taking time to talk about why the fish are so important to families, communities and culture.

Mere, who hails from Kadavu, fondly describes her earliest memories of fish being served at the house of a close relative.

Mere, who had to stand on her toes to see the table top, remembers a fish poster on the wall that would spur long talks about the fish they were eating, and the many others on Fiji’s reefs.

“I remember those meals instilling in me an appreciation for just the richness and diversity of fish that we have here in Fiji and it gave me an appreciation for knowing exactly what’s on your plate, where the fish comes from,” she reminisces.

“You’d learn about the particular fisherman or fisherwoman who the fish was bought from and what village or community that fish came from. So, it was always part of something that was enjoyable and full of stories.”

Mere also came to realise how important the fish were to meeting the food and income needs of Fiji’s families, and in particular, kawakawa and donu. So when the government established the ban, she was very encouraged.

“The ban was heartening to see. It shows the changing and appreciation in people’s hearts and minds about what these fish mean to us and what they mean to the fabric of our society and our way of life. I think it’s about appreciating that they are part of a larger system of livelihoods and of food and food sources for communities and for people,” says Mere, who is a communications specialist by profession.

But she said she also realised that a law would only work if people believed it’s needed.

“Having a law or something written with methods of enforcing it is one thing, but I think the most important thing this campaign continues to do and has been doing, is to really ensure that people’s minds and attitudes are changing along the way and that we appreciate what we have before its gone,” she adds.

So Mere plans to share the 4FJ story and her story about why fish matter. Her goal is to make sure that stories of kawakawa and donu are not all we have left to share with the next generation.

“I think these future generations deserve more than just stories and memories,” she says. “They deserve to participate in this way of life that
we all cherish. They deserve to make these memories for themselves and to enjoy these fish for themselves.

The actions that we take now will ensure that they are able to partake in this way of life and enjoy these fish for themselves.”

 Alumeci Nakeke is the communication officer for cChange. For more information on the 4FJ campaign, visit www.4fjmovement.org. The views expressed are the author’s and not of this newspaper

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