In Fiji, a Fishing Fundraiser Takes a Toll

March 23, 2012

When local fishers in Kia Island opened a protected coral reef to fishing for a short-term community fundraising effort, the effects of the harvest bore long-term consequences for the reef's health.

In 2008, the residents of three villages on Fiji’s Kia Island held a fundraiser. Money was needed for schools, churches and provincial levies, so the residents turned to one of their most lucrative resources: the local waters. The villagers decided to temporarily lift a no-fishing ban on a protected coral reef near their shores, in hopes of generating 12,000 Fiji dollars (approximately $7,500 US) in fish and sea cucumbers.

WCS researchers working in the area saw the fishing fundraiser as an opportunity. Because they had surveyed this particular reef just prior to the announced harvest, they decided to examine how such a short-term event would affect the ecosystem’s long-term health.

“We realized this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to directly assess the impacts of a huge harvest event in a coral reef normally closed to fishing,” said Dr. Stacy Jupiter, lead author of the study. “Many studies have examined the vulnerability of reef systems to overfishing. In this instance, we had a baseline in what was a protected area, followed by a survey of the site one month into the harvest and then a year later to gather evidence of recovery.”

The study, carried out by WCS’s Marine Program and partners at James Cook University and Wetlands International, appears in a recent online version of the journal Coral Reefs.

Predictably, the research team found that the reef’s populations of large-bodied, commercially valuable species, such as surgeonfish, parrotfish, snapper, emperor, and grouper, were severely depleted during the five-week harvest. Some species disappeared entirely as fishers continued to haul in catches even after they raised the target of 12,000 Fiji dollars during the fundraiser’s first day. Other species, the team speculated, may have simply fled to an adjacent reef outside the fishing area.

A year later, the situation hadn’t changed much. The marine scientists recorded a significantly smaller variety of fish on the reef than they had found before the harvest. Their findings also suggested that fishers may have continued to ply these waters even after the fishing ban was reinstated.

Unsustainable fishing for commercial sale is on the rise in Oceania. To stem the tide in Fiji, the study’s authors recommend various measures. Fishing managers should control future harvests with a combination of restrictions on gear, the duration of opening, access, and total catch. They should also monitor catches to ensure enough breeding adult fish remain to replenish local populations. Finally, fishing communities should come to verbal and written consensus on the process of how fishing events are authorized, carried out, and when and how they end.

WCS’s work in Fiji has been made possible through the generous support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Tiffany & Co. Foundation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
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