Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Waitabu Marine Park on Taveuni

MARITIME - Waitabu marks marine park anniversary

www.fijidailypost.com - 6-Jun-2008

Sai's Comment:
- This is a great example of how native Fijians could also contribute to preserving their environment while generating some earnings from their natural resources. Am proud to have met people involved in the Waitabu project when in NZ from the contributions of the NZ government. Am more proud to learn that my island of Yacata have just recently also designated a part of the fishery around the island as a marine reserve. Great effort and leadership by those on the island.

TWENTY years ago the villagers of Waitabu on the north-eastern coast of Taveuni would never give a second thought about their reefs or what dwelled on their shores. They walk on the reefs breaking the corals and take home whatever they can eat no matter how small they are. There was heavy algal or seaweed growth because there was no more fish to feed on it.The state of the Waitabu village coast was so pathetic that at first sight, Helen Sykes, a marine ecologist had no hope it could return to its natural state and refused when approached by the community to set up a marine protected area (MPA) or taboo on their fishing ground. But with the community’s continual persistence Ms Sykes finally agreed.As the project began, the community was constantly reminded that once the taboo was in place, they were to respect it. 

They were taught not to disturb the area by taking boats through the MPA or break any corals or take anything out whether it is fish, invertebrates or any dead coral. They were also not allowed to use poles when sailing across the taboo area or anchor their boats as it would damage the corals. Ms Sykes then held workshops with the villagers to monitor the taboo area. The monitoring was done to find out whether there was an improvement in the taboo area and if not, what can be done about it. The first three years they nurtured the MPA until 2001 when the marine park was opened to tourists and visitors.

The US Peace Corps also placed a number of volunteers in the village over the past four years to provide organisational and directional support, otherwise the project has been largely self-supporting and self motivating, said Sykes. The project also had long-term support from the Reef Support and Marine Ecology Consulting, project-based development support from New Zealand through NZAID, Coral Reef Alliance, Reef Check, Fiji Water and Quicksilver clothing. A decade later the community of Waitabu in Taveuni are now reaping the benefits of its marine reserve called the Waitabu Marine Park, which is a five-minute boat ride away from the village.On May 26, Waitabu celebrated the 10th anniversary of their marine protected area, which covers an area of about 0.27square kilometres, of shallow fringing reef flat and slope.The chief guest for the day was Ms Sykes herself who was honoured by the village for her hard work. They referred to here as “the mother of the project”. In her celebration address Ms Sykes praised the efforts put in by the community. “I know what has made Waitabu so special is that many times we have not had a great deal of financial support, or a large orgarnisation behind us for 10 years or people who would just be able to bring money in whenever we needed,” she reminded the people. “When we started out we only had help from NZAID and most of this work had been done by small people and small organisations”. “I had been very lucky to have a relationship with the village for the last 10 years. And the marine park began in April 1998 after long talks with the community.“We were originally helped by the NZAID and the Tourism Resource Consultant and that time Sala Apao (the late manager of the park who died two years ago) had asked me to come down and three times I said no and the community insisted.” She said she refused because the villagers were fishing on the reef all the time, people were walking on the corals all the time and when she went in the water she saw “nothing, nothing , nothing”. But it was the determination and persistence of the community that they finally closed it for three years but did not have any tourism“ And since that time it has been my honour to be proved wrong. 

Every year since then we have come back and counted the fish, corals and animals. We have seen the people of Waitabu make this area grow like a garden and create amazing things that will provide fish and animals and cash income in the future for its people.”Waitabu was the third site to start an MPA and also a member of Fiji Locally Managed Marine Areas (FLMMA) through which they had been able to share all throughout Fiji what they had learnt from the MPA in Waitabu.It has been assisted by NZAID who supplied the first boat and also built the office with the National Trust. 

Tabu markers and boat moorings and marine tour guide training was done by Reef support and CORAL.A new boat was donated by Reef Check, Quicksilver and Fiji Water. Annual biological surveys were done by FLMMA, Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, Coral Reef Alliance, Beqa Adventure Divers, Matagi Island Resort and the USP Institute of Applied Sciences.As part of the special day, guests were taken to the taboo area to snorkel and take a look for themselves the various forms of marine life that Waitabu had to offer.Our boat crossed over the village fishing ground before reaching the marine reserve, which was marked with buoys. We noticed how the fishing ground was covered with sargassum and other seaweeds and there weren’t hardly any corals and fish to be seen.

But as one reaches the edge of the reserve fish begins to swim in schools next to untouched beautiful coloured corals. Ms Sykes explained: “In the Tabu area there has been no fishing for 10 years and there are very many surgeonfish (balagi or ika loa) and parrotfish (ulavi). These fish eat seaweeds and keep the rocks clean.“ In the fishing grounds, large seaweeds had overgrown the tops of the coral boulders. And there are very few live corals in the area because new corals cannot grow amongst the overgrown seaweed.” Before going into the water, Marine Reserve tour guide, Okostino Apao, reminded the visitors on the importance of the marine park and its rules.“You are going to have tour guides with you and do not wander away from the group,” he advised.“You have to watch that your fins do not touch or break any corals. You must never pick or take anything out from its place. Leave them where they are even if they are dead corals do not disturb them because you are here to see and not to touch.”The tour began from the fish houses built by the villagers that are now overgrown with beautiful corals and a place for different fish species to hide and nibble.Snorkelling above the reef one could see that this area is really a haven for fish. 

They have hump head wrasse, surgeon fish, damsel fish, trevally and other reef fishes and such big sizes, one hardly finds nowadays on our reefs. It was an awesome sight just watching them swim at their leisure and it would be a motivating evidence for those qoliqoli owners whose fishing grounds have been over fished and want to set up an MPA. 

Added to the beauty were the giant clams that I had never seen which had embedded themselves in the reef and they also had troches shells.The quantity of corals was another story as they also have different species. I even saw a turtle swimming by and it was amazing to see what 10 years of protection did to an area that had been overfished and devastated by human activities. Best of all it seemed that the fish did not care about the intruders as they were very tame and unafraid going about their normal activities. Unlike other reefs where fish swim away when they see people the fish on these reefs just stay where they are and seem to think you are one of their kind. 

I had snorkled in three Tabu sights in Viti Levu and I consider Waitabu to be the best and would recommend it to any tourist.By 11 o’clock the villagers came to the beach bure in their colourful shirts and ‘jamba’ or dresses. Their beautiful radiant smiles revealed their happiness they got from the magnificent underworld of the Waitabu Marine Park.Ms Nakeke is the Ocean Science Reporter for SeaWeb. SeaWeb is a non government organisation that helps the media promote and protect a healthy ocean.


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