Study Finds Significant Reef Fish Decline In Fiji Following Cyclone Winston

Damage to coastal reefs could take 10 years to recover

By Kalesi Mele

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Oct. 6, 2016) – Thirteen coastal villages in Ra whose livelihoods depend on coral reef fishing will have to wait about 10 years before fish stocks are replenished to pre-Severe TC Winston numbers, a study found.

A survey around the coastal fringes of cyclone-affected areas by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and University of the South Pacific revealed damage to coral reefs in the wake of the cyclone would result in a decline of reef fish for about two years, and the more damaged coral reefs will likely take more than 10 years to recover.

The study said the situation would impact inshore fisheries, thus affecting those in nearby communities.

WCS director Dr Sangheeta Manghubai said there were already documented reports on the large declines in the number of biomass of coral reef fish in the Ra, Bua and Lomaiviti provinces and if conservative measures were not taken to allow the reefs to recover, a continued decline in reef species was expected.

"Fishing in deeper water, especially areas that were not impacted by the cyclone will relieve the pressure on inshore reefs and give inshore habitats and fisheries the time needed to recover," she said.

"If we don't, we can push these systems into a further state of degradation which will be hard to reverse. This is not going to be good for communities in the long term."

During a tour of the province two weeks ago, villagers who were finding it hard to make ends meet told a team from The Fiji Times they had to go out beyond the reef and into deeper waters to catch fish.

Orisi Naibuka of Saioko Village said gone were the days when women would wade into the shallows to collect saltwater mussels and nautilus to sell and for the family to eat.

Ratu Manoa Seru, who chaired the Ra Provincial Council meeting two weeks ago, said the issue was the same at his Matainananu Village on Burewai in Nakorotubu, Ra.

He said villagers now had to work harder.

"So many villages along the coastal areas are facing the same thing," he said.

"They have to go out into much deeper waters to catch good-sized fish to eat and to sell."

After the cyclone villagers found large corals in reefs either overturned or smashed to pieces.

Dr Manghubai said while limited coral reef studies had been conducted in the Ra Province, it was highly likely the situation would remain for a long time.

"WCS found extensive damage to corals in Ra Province, with large corals overturned and more delicate corals (branching corals) smashed into small pieces," she said.

"With such high losses in corals, it is highly likely that their inshore fisheries will be impacted, particular species who rely on coral for their home." Dr Manghubhai said it could take about a decade for the reefs to recover.

"If sea cucumbers have become buried in coral rubble (broken up pieces of coral) and died, their recovery will be slow," she said.

"This is because sea cucumber populations are already over exploited and very low in Fiji.

"You have to have sea cucumbers in high enough densities for them to successfully reproduce. Reef fish will likely be in decline for at least two years, and the more damaged coral reefs will likely take more than 10 years to recover."

Former secretary for the Bose va Vanua ko Bua, Tui Wainunu, Ratu Orisi Baleitavea said he was aware of the studies indicating the rapid decline in reef fish.

"We already have marine protected areas in place to be able to conserve reef fish," he said.

"The damage to our reefs is not as bad post-cyclone as some other places. There are occasions where my people come in and place special requests on their need to fish in a particular protected area and sometimes I allow it because as their leader I have to look after their welfare. But the protected areas will remain as agreed upon by conservative organisations and our people."

Ratu Manoa said the people of Ra had yet to decide on what to do having had recent discussions with representatives of USP.

"Right now I am awaiting word on what the experts have to say on what we need to do," he said.

"I received a call stating a meeting next week where we will discuss the right way forward."

Fiji Times Online.
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