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