Fijians have strong roots and connections with the Pacific Ocean that surrounds them. They are highly dependent on the bounty of the ocean for their livelihoods and daily food, especially those communities residing in the rural coastal areas. For generations, Fijian communities have also helped make fish and other seafood available and accessible to consumers in urban areas, who frequent markets around the country. However, the challenge is how to continue supplying seafood sustainably without damaging habitats or depleting natural resources completely.
Unfortunately, climate change induced changes in weather patterns and natural disasters, as well as land-based human activities are significantly degrading coral reef systems. Tropical Cyclone Winston which struck Fiji in February 2016 caused extensive damage to coral reefs, including those around Ovalau Island in the Lomaiviti Province. To assist in their recovery, communities on Ovalau Island opened their tabu areas (fisheries closures) to harvest their resources for food and income soon after the cyclone.
To find out how the coral reefs and communities have recovered from the Tropical Cyclone Winston’s, a team from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) spent two weeks in May on Ovalau Island conducting socioeconomic and dive surveys. The dive team, led by myself and Dr. Emily Darling from the WCS Global Marine Program, dove into the serene and open waters of Ovalau for 6 days. Together we surveyed 17 sites around the island, including areas within and outside community tabu areas, and across different habitats. Once under the water, we counted fish and recorded coral cover ‒ these are important indicators of how healthy a coral reef system is.
We found reefs were still clearly recovering from the damage caused by Tropical Cyclone Winston, and areas that were clearly heavily fished. We also found some reefs choking from sediments coming off the land. But it was not all doom and gloom. There were reefs, particularly those a little further from shore, that were vibrant and flourishing. There was a high diversity of corals and the reefs buzzing with fish life. These “reefs of hope” are critical for the recovery of the more damaged reefs.
While the dive team was busy under the water, a second team conducted household surveys in the 8 villages around Ovalau Island to better understand the reliance local communities have on their marine resources, for both livelihoods and food security. Communities shared their perspectives on traditional practices such as tabus, they use for maintaining the health of the coral reefs. Some wanted to restrict catch sizes and protect spawning aggregation sites for fish reproduction, to address key threats and to maintain the productivity of their marine systems.
We hope the socioeconomic and coral reef data will prove valuable for local communities who are working together to develop a vision for their island. Over the next 1.5 years, all the communities on Ovalau Island will be identifying the main threats to their natural resources, both on land and in the sea, and developing strategies to address these. Included in this, will be strategies to help communities be better prepared for future climate change impacts and natural disasters. Calls have been made by locals to be more inclusive, so that for example, women can equally participate in decision-making on natural resources.
With the support of the Lomaiviti Provincial Office and WCS, the local communities hope to make a management plan over the entire island and the surrounding coral reefs. This will also include Levuka, the old capital for Fiji which is currently listed as a World Heritage Site.