The Ghost Reefs of Kadavu
June 19, 2009
By David Helvarg
The Ghost Reefs of Kadavu
In 2002 I went to Fiji to report on coral bleaching. I’ve just returned to find that while the corals have recovered from major bleaching events in 2000 and 2002 most of the marine wildlife, including almost all the middle sized and large fish have disappeared, at least where my friend Scott Fielder and I dove among the ghost reefs of Kadavu, Fiji’s fourth largest island.
There are healthy and extensive hard and soft coral communities on the island’s Matanuku and Astrolabe Reefs that are also home to small nursery fish but few if any sea stars, sea cucumber, urchins, eels, parrotfish, snapper, grouper, trevally, sharks or turtles. By our third dive we began wondering what was going on. “I’ve dived all through the Indo-Pacific for 30 years and have never seen anything like this,” Scott noted. Amidst spectacular 9 and 10 story high underwater pinnacles, swim thru caverns and deep canyons, mesas and vertical walls dropping into the abyss we find the first indicators of algal disease as corals cannot maintain themselves without schools of large parrot fish, urchins and other grazers to control the algae growth.
Outside the reef line big longline fishing trawlers are taking thousands of tons of tuna, shark and other open water species, having paid small licensing fees to deplete Fiji’s waters. The Fiji Hotel Association has written a letter of protest to the military government but gotten no response.
After five days of diving ghost reefs I convince Scott that we ought to cut out early and head over to the capital of Suva on the “mainland” island of Viti Levu to do some interviews and see if our suspicions bear out.
We fly from the Vunisea airstrip into Nadi on a Twin Otter prop plane over a string of offshore atolls and reefs. There we rent a car to drive across the big island to Suva. Despite the latest political tensions there are few troops visible in the Capitol. In fact Suva has hardly changed in the seven years I’ve been away. The Centra hotel on Victoria Parade is now a Holiday Inn and the big rusty Taiwanese longline fishing vessels in the harbor have been joined by others from mainland China, Korea and Indonesia. We count over 15 that among them can put more than 50,000 hooks in the water on any given day.
We stop at the Greenpeace office located in the old municipal building above a Chinese restaurant. There Steve Shallhorn and Seni Nabou tell us that the local chapter has a harbor watch program that often spots ships whose (identification) numbers have been painted over or have numbers that don’t match the vessel’s registered name, sure signs of illegal pirate fishing. Seni says there are also reports of sea cucumbers being stolen in the isolated Lao island group where her family is from.
Between its Coups the Australian government gave Fiji three patrol boats to help with Fisheries enforcement but since Commodore Frank Bainimarama, head of Fiji’s 400-man Navy, is also head of the military government I figure he has bigger fish to fry.
At the Fisheries office in the village of Lami a few miles outside of town we meet and talk with Sunia Waqainabeter, the Senior Research Officer in the Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Primary Industries (fishing, farming and logging). Sunia is a brown-eyed, gray haired Fijian, about 5’10″ with a friendly, informed manner, faded blue Aloha shirt and blue sulu skirt. Even as a leader of FLMMA, the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area Program, a bottom-up effort to merge customary marine claims with an ecosystem based approach to ocean protection, he’s still worried about the future of his people and the ocean wildlife they depend on.
“The two major issues are poaching and depletion of resources where most communities are telling us it’s taking them longer to catch fish and they’re seeing a decline in catches, and the trend just keeps going down. We had a big drop in inshore fishing data between 1998 and 2004. In some areas you have had 10,000 tons (of fish caught) drop to 2,400 tons in one year.”
He tells us our suspicions of overfishing are correct, that unregulated poaching is widespread inside the reef lines with urban fishermen from Suva raiding customary (traditional) fishing areas in Kadavu. “But its now everywhere in Fiji. Our local (appointed) fish wardens don’t have the boats and engines to catch them.”
He thinks unscrupulous business people are funding up to 1,000 night divers with spear guns (Fiji’s population is just over 800,000). The fisheries department has 154 employees.
He tells us how his uncle was killed on his home island in the Lao group after stopping one of the poacher’s boats.
A few days earlier the dive group we were with had brought school supplies to the Drue village primary school on Kadavu at the end of a long afternoon. There we were serenaded by 20 students who sang in beautiful two-part Harmony hymns and songs both in English and Fijian about ‘waves on the ocean’ and ‘paradise goodbye to you’ and as the fading light turned their blue and white school uniforms to shadow gray the dive tour leader told them, “We think you children are the best ambassadors of the islands and hope you grow up to become divers so you can enjoy what you have in your front yard.”
And I couldn’t help but think how much of their front yard ocean paradise had already been stolen from them.
Ocean Week Getting Stronger
This year the U.N. officially declared June 8 World Ocean Day and D.C. did its annual ocean week thing, until President Obama declared the entire month of June Ocean Month. Personally I think the other 71 percent should get two thirds of the year. The week started for me and Jim Toomey (Sherman’s Lagoon) at the Smithsonian’s Sant Ocean Hall. I talked while he drew examples of our book’s “50 Ways to Save the Ocean,” on screen. Also volunteer scientists explained the briny blue to the hall’s many other visitors. The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation had its annual dinner and Capitol Hill Ocean Week with numerous panels and the release of a report on the economic value of healthy public seas. SeaWeb and the United Nations Environmental Program held a reception at the National Press Club with Senator and Sandra Whitehouse, Delegate Madeleine Bordallo of Guam, Mike Boots of the Council on Environmental Quality and others. NOAA had its annual fish fry where the artist Wyland, cartoonist Toomey and myself got to briefly say hi to NOAA’s new chief Jane Lubchenco (see pix). The next day Wyland did a nice mural by the Mall with Smokey the Bear, Sam the sanctuary sea lion and many paintbrush wielding kids around a forest to ocean theme. The Secretary of Agriculture and heads of the Forest Service and National Marine Sanctuaries also attended. The week culminated Friday with President Obama, our first bodysurfing President, announcing his new ocean policy. The White House’s Blue Memorandum calls for an interagency task force led by the Council on Environmental Quality to protect, maintain and restore marine ecosystems by identifying the steps needed to implement that goal (OK, it’s a taskforce to create an ocean policy). Additionally, the task force is charged with developing science-based, comprehensive ocean ecosystem planning to balance competing uses of our oceans. We’ll all need to pull our oars together to make this happen. Speaking of which…
No Business Like Row Business
Got to credit Roz Savage for that title — Three weeks into the second leg of her Trans-Pacific solo row as the first woman (and Seaweed Rebel) to cross an Ocean in order to save it, Roz has made (no jinx intended) remarkable progress to date with the worst incident involving a pair of rude Albatrosses who sat and then shat upon her rowboat. Apparently the immunity conveyed them by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem has given them an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. For more on Roz go to rozsavage.com or link through www.bluefront.org
With support from NRDC, The Gulf Restoration Network, two strong arms and one supportive family Margo Pellegrino has also completed her Gulf Paddle against pollution this month that took her from Florida to New Orleans, her second major coastal outrigger paddle to bring seaweeds together. For more go to Miami2Maine.com
During Ocean Week I got to meet with Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen and asked him if he’d met Jane Lubchenco of NOAA yet (only briefly he said). The next evening I saw Jane at the NOAA Fish Fry (is there a better way to celebrate the ocean than to eat a ton of marine wildlife?). There she thanked me for the copy I’d sent her of my new ‘Rescue Warriors’ book on the Coast Guard (available at your local bookstore). In it’s final chapter, “The Next Surge” I promote the idea of an independent Department of the Oceans that would include the Coast Guard and NOAA. It may not be what’s politically feasible at the moment but it’s what I believe is in the best public interest. Meanwhile Admiral Allen tells me he’d like to invite Dr. Lubchenco, CEQ’s Nancy Sutley, Climate Czarina Carol Browner and others to the Arctic this August to see the open waters of a melting ecosystem that the Coasties now must guard. Sounds like a great first date to me.
From the Commander In Chief
“I call upon all Americans to learn more about the oceans and what can be done to conserve them,” — President Barack
Obama June 12, 2009
“Read ’50 Ways to Save the Ocean,” — Me
Blue Frontier Campaign (through it’s publisher, New World Library) continues to offer the book ’50 Ways to Save the Ocean’ to non-profit groups at only 40 percent of cover
price so you can take your President’s advice and fundraise at the same time, a good way to raise awareness and cash in these hard times (minimum order of 20). Contact Amy@newworldlibrary.com