4. Fiji's fishers celebrate their first marine reserve

Posted: 19 January 2001

Author: Meg Gawler

Author Info: Meg Gawler is the founding Director of Artemis Services for Nature Conservation and Human Development based in France.

Fiji's first community-based marine protected area has now been set up by local villagers - and officially recognised by the local authorities. Already the fish are returning in abundance, as Meg Gawler reports in this special report for People & the Planet.

April 24, 2000 marked a milestone in the history of the village of Waisomo on the tiny island of Ono, which is surrounded by the Great Astrolabe Reef - the third largest reef system in the world, and one of the richest in terms of biodiversity. On Easter Monday, following the church service and prayers for the success of the mission, village headman Iokimi Naqelevuki called all the men and boys of the village together to help transport the concrete anchor he had made to secure the first mooring buoy of the Ulunikoro Marine Conservation Area.

Wooden planks were laid across the gunwales of a small fishing boat, and everyone pulled together to bring the anchor from the village to the beach, and then to hoist it onto the boat. At high tide, Naqelevuki and a team of fishers headed off across the bay and over the reef to the deep pools that the community has declared as a marine conservation area.

This day was many years in the making. Thirty years ago, the waters around Ono were teeming with fish. Catches were plentiful, and the fish were much bigger. Over the last ten years, the villagers watched with dismay as their catches dwindled, and the fish that were caught became smaller and smaller - a clear sign that the resource base was in deep trouble. In less than a generation, the typical size of the fish in their nets declined from about 80 to about 20 cm.

Previously, the headman of the small village of Waisomo (population 70) was Naqelevuki's older brother, Mikaele Vunitaraga. In December 1996, Vunitaraga participated in a university workshop on marine ecology and conservation, where he learned about marine protected areas (MPAs) as a way of managing marine resources in a sustainable way.

This idea made perfect sense to him, as it resonated with centuries-old traditional wisdom that had been handed down from his father and grandfather. According to custom, upon the death of a king, a key fishing area would be declared "taboo" for 100 nights. This was a well-known method of guaranteeing a bountiful harvest of fish, necessary for the elaborate celebrations marking the installation of the new regent. Vunitaraga figured that if a taboo for 100 nights would ensure a rich harvest for the crowning of a new king, then a permanent closure of a key fisheries area could restore the productivity of his village's "i qoliqoli" or traditional fishing ground, and ensure a sustainable harvest for the present and future generations of his people.

Deathbed wish

In 1997, Vunitaraga sought assistance from WWF in setting up the marine conservation area. This had to be culturally appropriate and help resource users to manage their resources sustainably.

In Fiji, Vunitaraga was a visionary leader for his time, and his first challenge was to convince the elders of his village of the wisdom of this idea. It was not easy. It took three village meetings to persuade his people that it made sense to fish less in order to have more. Although temporary taboo areas were a familiar practice, the decision by the Waisomo community in late 1997 to permanently declare an area as off limits to fishing was an idea that had never before been tried in Fiji.

Chief Vunitaraga became seriously ill in early 1998. On his deathbed, he transmitted his dying wish to his younger brother to carry through this marine conservation area from idea to reality. Naqelevuki decided then and there to make this his life mission.

After convincing Waisomo village, the second challenge in securing the MPA was to persuade all seven villages of the island of Ono to support the idea. Under the Fiji Native Lands Fisheries Commission, the title to traditional fishing grounds is established and mapped at the level of the district ("vanua"). Within the vanua, the boundaries of each village ("yavusa") are very well known, and have been handed down by oral tradition over generations. Nevertheless, as the legal, written title to the MPA rests with the vanua, it was necessary to secure the written consent of every village chief within the district. Naqelevuki confided, "For us, it was a big struggle to get all the other villages to agree."

Naqelevuki set out to visit all of the other six villages in the Ono district to talk about the importance of taking action now to set aside a no-fishing zone. The subject was also raised in four meetings of the Tikina ("District Council"). All of the other villages except one - Vabea - endorsed Waisomo's plan to set aside part of its i qoliqoli as an MPA, realising that the potential benefits of having a closed area would likely spread to the nearby waters of their own fishing grounds. Vabea resisted because of a long-simmering, but dormant conflict with its neighbour, Waisomo village, over the title of "Tui Ono" - the head Chief of the whole district.

In April 1999, WWF in collaboration with the Foundation for the People of the South Pacific organized a second meeting for the villages of Waisomo, Narikoso, and Vabea, to try to resolve the conflict between them. But still, the letter of consent from Boulou Salote, the chief of Vabea, remained unsigned.

Video power

It was decided that Naqelevuki should pursue the issue diplomatically with Salote, who had claimed the title of Tui Ono. First, Naqelevuki shifted the dispute over the title from the personal to the village level, and presented to the Tikina Council the documentation received from his grand-father demonstrating that the title rested with the village of Waisomo. As Boulou Salote had no such proof to her claim, it was decided that the title of Tui Ono would rest with Waisomo, but that the position of Tui Ono would remain unfilled.

That settled, Naqelevuki adopted a conciliatory personal approach to win Salote's endorsement. Waiting until the time seemed right, he paid her a visit one day, and tried to tempt her by saying "My video's free today. Would you like to come see a film?" Videos are a rare item on Ono, and Naqelevuki had recently received a copy of the five-minute documentary video that WWF had made on the proposed marine protected area, demonstrating its importance for conservation for the people of Ono, and featuring Waisomo villagers themselves.

Boulou Salote was utterly captivated as she watched the film, and Naqelevuki could see by her reaction that the video had convinced her of the value of the idea of a marine protected area. The next day he went back to see her, and asked forgiveness for his previous angry words. He discovered that she had been under the impression that money was involved, and only Waisomo village would benefit. Seeing the video changed her mind, as she understood the rationale, and realized that all the villages of Ono could benefit.

With signed statements of support from all the other villages in the district, Naqelevuki sought and received endorsement for the marine conservation plan from the District Council on 19 April 2000. With this, official gazettement by the government of the 20 ha Ulunikoro Marine Reserve was a mere formality.

After a third meeting, with the villagers of Waisomo drew up basic management guidelines for their entire i qoloqoli. Recognizing that their marine resources were being depleted by both commercial overfishing and by destructive fishing, they agreed on the following rules for their whole traditional fishing grounds:

  • No "duva". (This is the poison root that makes for an easy harvest, but kills all small fish and corals as well as the larger target fish.)
  • No compressors or scuba tanks for collecting "bêche de mer" (sea cucumbers).
  • Minimum mesh size for fishing nets set at three inches.
  • No killing of turtles, or taking of turtle eggs.
  • All fishers (and divers) for bêche de mer must have a license.

The practice of duva is especially destructive, and its use is widespread in Fiji. According to Waisomo village elder, Romeo Rokomaqisa, "Formerly, we used poison to fish. But after the workshop we realized that we were destroying the basis of the fishery. Now duva is completely taboo throughout our i qoliqoli."

Abundant fish

The fishers of Waisomo are encouraged by the fast response of their coastal ecosystem to the management measures they have taken. Naqelevuki reports that although the community MPA has been closed to fishing for less than three years, the fish are already coming back - in both size and abundance.

To be effective, resource management regulations need an enforcement mechanism. Recognizing that its resources for enforcement are extremely limited, the Fijian government has adopted a policy of empowering selected villagers as Honorary Fish Wardens, who are legally authorized to enforce the provisions of the Fisheries Act. To date, the Ministry has named 14 men from five different Ono villages as fish wardens. Naqelevuki is proud to show his official Certificate of Authority signed on January 13, 2000 by the Permanent Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forests.

With the approval of all the villages, and the new mandate from the Ministry, Naqelevuki decided to move ahead with demarcation of his village's Ulunikoro Marine Reserve, which is a unique area where two deep lagoons split the fringing reef in the world-renowned South Astrolabe Reef system. He collected used buoys from here and there, and poured concrete blocks for anchors.

It was a proud moment for headman Naqelevuki when he went out to the site of the MPA with a team of helpers from the village - accompanied by the WWF South Pacific Programme's Marine Conservation Officer, Sangeeta Mangubhai, together with a visitor from overseas (this writer) - and he gently pushed the heavy anchor off the little boat, and watched it settle perfectly into place in the clear waters of the coral lagoon.

It was just a simple mooring buoy for research and diving, but to Naqelevuki, it was a historic moment for the village of Waisomo - the first physical manifestation of the Ulunikoro community-initiated, community-designed marine protected area. To Naqelevuki, this first buoy is also a living testimony to the last request of his revered brother.