C3 Conservation Ambassadors

Planting the mangrove seeds. (image by Brett Monroe Garner)

Today I had the opportunity to join Maleli Qera from C3 as he ran his Conservation Ambassador program for the young people of Kia Island here in Fiji. C3 stands for Community Centered Conservation; it is a NGO focused on providing conservation education to empower communities to protect their local environments. With his Conservation Ambassadors program he trains up the young people of the island to care for their resources. 

Mangrove seeds washed ashore from the mainland. (image by Brett Monroe Garner)

We visited the far side of the island to check a site where the team has been planting new mangrove trees. The hope is to help establish healthy mangroves where young fish can grow, which will help contribute to the overall health of the reef and strengthen the community’s livelihood. Along the way the group collected mangrove seeds which they relocated to the more suitable growing area. 

Seed planting. (image by Brett Monroe Garner)

Sadly there was some disappointment on the trip, as the team discovered the seedlings they had been growing were washed away in a recent storm. Once the mangroves are mature they protect the island from coastal erosion but until then they are susceptible to storm surge. Unfazed, the group moved on the a second, more protected site for the new plantings. 

Male teaching about the importance of mangroves. (image by Brett Monroe Garner)

Male teaching about the importance of mangroves. (image by Brett Monroe Garner)

The day’s work was helpful in protecting the island’s resources, but the true value of the activity was the educational component and the investment it instilled in those involved. 

Finding the Story

Kia fishermen deploying the community seine net--fishing effort has increased while catch sizes decrease on the island. image by Brett Monroe Garner

I tried not to have many preconceived ideas about the island before arriving in Fiji. We preferred to tell the story we found rather than the one we brought with us. I did however have a general notion of what we were hoping to tell, but even this general idea had to be thrown out as the story of Kia turned out to be much more complex and tragic than we imagined. It turned from a happy, conservation success story to a dark one involving poachers and a community forced to overuse their only resource in order to get by.

The original project idea was to feature a fishing community that used both traditional knowledge and modern conservation methods to successfully manage their marine resource. Kia seemed to be the perfect candidate. The community had subsisted purely on fishing for hundreds of years and as there is no other source of income, conservation is extremely important for their livelihood. We knew they had a sizable marine protected area and that they worked closely with a non-government organization called C-3 on conservation issues. The situation sounded exactly what we were looking for. Sadly our original expectations were not fully met.

Amelia Ulu looks out of her home. Some of the friendliest people in the world, it is nearly impossible to walk by a house without being asked in for a meal or tea. image by Brett Monroe Garner

Kia lived up to its reputation as a beautiful place with goodnatured and welcoming people. It is an island paradise. The skill and expertise of the fishermen were exactly what we expected and what we were looking to feature. But the problem came with the villages’ utilization of conservation techniques; it was not the success story we were hoping for.  

It soon became clear that the Kians were not successfully conserving their reef. Those concerned with protecting the resource are pessimistic about the future, knowing they are overfishing. Yet they feel powerless to do anything about it. They expressed there were many more fish in the past and it is becoming more difficult to earn a living fishing on Kia. Fishermen travel increasingly farther distances in order to catch large fish.  With the increasing difficulty to catch fish, the cost—primarily fuel— also increases creating an even greater demand for larger catches. This is coupled with the failure of the island’s main conservation tool, a large no-take reserve. There has been open fishing in the reserve for the past four years and there are no plans to close it again. While there are many supporters of the no-take area, even the strongest supporters feel powerless to protect it from outsiders who come at night to poach within the area, as there is limited government support and no funds for local enforcement. They figured if someone is going to take the fish it might as well be them.  

Kians fishing offshore. A generation ago large fish could be caught from the beach; now fishermen must travel increasingly farther distances to find them. image by Brett Monroe Garner

All of these factors contribute to the main problem; the fishery is an open access resource. This is an economics term which simply means the fishery is a free-for-all. Every fish the community doesn’t take will be taken by someone else. They are just trying to to be, as one of the younger fisherman told us, “the best fisherman for as long as [we] can. Outcompete the rest while we can.” They are working hard just to get by, to send their children to school and to maybe have an hour or two of electricity at night. 

This is unfortunate for both the people of Kia and the Great Sea Reef. Despite the desires to maintain a no-take area and to fish at a sustainable level, their helplessness to stop outsiders drives them to compete for the last fish. This ensures both their livelihood and their way of life will disappear unless there are changes in the near future.  

Benny, a young Kian boy dives for fun just offshore from his village. If the fishery collapses he will have to move off-island to make a living. image by Brett Monroe Garner

Welcome to Kia

Kia Island rises out of the horizon. 

We take off early in the morning, sitting crossed legged on the floor of a small, outboard powered boat packed with our belongings and supplies for the village. We travel along the Great Sea Reef which turns the water a light turquoise. I know it’s the third largest barrier reef in the world but I don’t yet realize how amazing it is. I try to crack some dumb joke to our island contact Male, who works for a local NGO, C3. The island rises in the distance and we have quite the adventure ahead of us. 

Kia is a remarkable place. The locals are expert fishermen known as the best in Fiji. They have been guarding and subsisting on The Great Sea Reef for generations out of memory. The traditional lifestyle they hold onto is one that just seems right; it is a community that supports one another, a community that values sharing and close relationships. The fishing they do is just enough to support their families and their community. This is an idyllic paradise; one that puts my self-serving nature to shame. 

Map showing the location of Kia. While it is only a small island, a part of the already remote islands of Fiji, it is also part of a much larger story and can be viewed as an example of what is happening in similar communities around the world. Image from Google Maps. 

Map showing the location of Kia. While it is only a small island, a part of the already remote islands of Fiji, it is also part of a much larger story and can be viewed as an example of what is happening in similar communities around the world. Image from Google Maps. 

Unfortunately the story of Kia is not all positive; with the pressures of modernization like overfishing and climate change the Kians are in danger of losing their resource and their lifestyle along with it, and it may happen in the very near future. Chris and I are excited to bring you their story—a story that is just as relevant if you are sitting in the middle of a city in the US or on a remote island in the Pacific. 

Waitt ROC Grant

We are finally rolling out the project updates, but before we get into the real meat of the situation on Kia we would be amiss if we didn't speak about the foundation that made it all possible. 

I am very happy to announce Chris and I [Brett] received an ROC grant from the Waitt Foundation to fund our project Kia Over There. The Waitt Foundation is a San Diego based foundation with the mission to protect and restore our oceans. Their focus is to promote Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)--areas like those no-take ocean reserves that protect and improve marine health both within and without the area. 

This focus goes hand and hand with our work in Fiji as Kia is the site of a potentially exemplary MPA that is; unfortunately, not currently active for reasons we will explore in future posts. 

But for now we give our warmest thanks to the Waitt Foundation along with all the financial wizards and advisors at Scripps Institution of Oceanography who made this all possible! Thanks everyone; you know who you are. 


Bula to the new site

Hi everyone, Brett here, welcome to our new site. Here in this blog section we will be keeping you up to date on our project as well as giving you reports from the field in Fiji.

Chris and I are currently working out if we will be allowed to travel to Kia or not. To get to Kia it is not as simple as merely getting there; we must gain approval from the elders and the chief before we can arrive. Just today we spoke with one of our Fijian collaborators Ako Rokomate and we were able to set our travel dates. We are going to Kia!

Ako has been a tremendous help in setting up the logistics for our trip. She works for C3, one of the NGOs we partnered with for this project. You can find their website here

The only thing that remains now is the traditional sevu sevu ceremony. Here we will present kava to the chief on arrival, and--hopefully--gain approval to stay in the village. Let's hope we make a good first impression. 

Brett Garner and Chris Neighbors photo by Amy Bowman 

Brett Garner and Chris Neighbors photo by Amy Bowman