I first traveled to this Pacific Islander nation made up of 332 islands scattered throughout the heart of Oceania, back in 2010 to cover a story on eco-tourism. During that initial trip I had the opportunity to visit one of Fiji's locally managed marine-area networks (FLMMA). I was inspired by the community based "tabu" (pronounced tambu) initiative in which a local chief designates a specific area as a "no fishing" zone for a certain amount of time, at least one year, in order to ensure healthy coral reef systems and allow ?sh populations to recover from the occasional natural disaster and the ever-growing devastation caused by excessive commercial over fishing- primarily by foreign long lining vessels. The tabu system is very much a grassroots movement, based on community and environmental health needs, led and enforced by the power of the people. It encourages local villages to regain control of their marine ecosystems, which their survival and that of future generations ultimately depend upon.
During my trip I met with the villagers and chief of the small seaside village of Wailevu in order to gain firsthand perspective on the impact of their recently implemented tabu area. It had been almost two years since the tabu went into effect which one local spear fisherman turned conservationist described as, "a highly successful initiative that has seen the reappearance of big fish, lobsters, and sea cucumbers." If the designated tabu area had not been in place after the devastating hurricane that caused severe damage to several Fijian coastlines and reefs, including that of Wailevu in 2009, they may not have seen the recovery as they did in such a short amount of time--initial analysis showed that it would have taken up to 5-10 years.
Turanga Nikoro, proudly referred to as the "Father of the Village," worked to establish the first tabu area that stretches 2.5 miles of the small village's 4-mile coastline. He explained the need for further protected areas, "When I was a young boy, it was Mom who was the main 'fisherman' of the house. There were so many fish and seashells in those days and the reef was in good condition. She could go out for 30 minutes and come home with enough fish to feed us for days. Nowadays it may take up to 5 or 6 hours just for a few fish." Because of this scarcity, he explained that local fishermen are the biggest supporters of the tabu initiative and as a result the locals feel some ownership in it. These people live it--they see the reality first hand on a daily basis and understand what needs to be done in order to ensure a healthy marine environment.
To break the tabu would be sacrilege according to local culture and legend, although this certainly has not stopped the usual suspects (China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan) from the raping and pillaging of these waters, often times within the designated marine protected areas. In fact, local villagers told me that they had already been approached by foreign fisheries representatives, who tried to bribe their way into the tabu area. Even offering to pay them up to a $1 per sea cucumber, knowing of their abundance since the tabu had been put into place. It seems no place on Planet Ocean is safe from the plunder.
Sadly, this is the very dynamic of profit and greed that has turned Fiji into one of the world's largest exporters of shark fins. Shark finning is NOT part of the traditional Fijian practice nor is shark fishing, but rather a purely economic driven industry that has been introduced by foreign culprits. Furthermore, many local Fijians, especially in areas where the legend of the "Shark God" is prevalent, do not eat shark as they revere the animal as an ancient relative or "totem" who acts as a protector and they in turn protect sharks as well. They understand the important role that shark plays in maintaining the delicate balance of a biodiversity and thriving marine eco-system.
Make no mistake, Fiji indeed has it's own fleet of long lining vessels and commercial fishing is still very much big business here. However, the main method of fishing in the majority of villages is still by hand line or spear and the majority of Fijian people that we have spoken to and interviewed along the way have expressed genuine concerns and have emphasized their desires to protect and sustain this life-giving source that has nurtured and provided for them from their beginning. Fijians have a deep respect for the health of their islands, their oceans and their culture--all which are interdependent. Since the chances of the local population turning to a strictly plant based diet overnight is simply unrealistic, perhaps the creation of as many long-term tabu areas as possible is a step in the right direction. I know that many Fijians would like to see this become a reality as well and their current model is currently paving the way for fellow Pacific nations to follow suit.
And time is of the essence--we can no longer sit back and wait for the greedy overfishing bullies of the world to have an overnight enlightenment. The time has come to stop talking about potential scenarios for future solutions. If we are to truly safeguard the future of sharks on this planet, then these nations will inevitably require collaboration, education, awareness, and enforcement of their marine protected areas and sanctuaries. And support for other forms of income. I sincerely hope that Fiji and neighboring countries will look to the continued and ever-growing success carried out by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, particularly in the Galapagos Islands where Sea Shepherd continues to work with local government and park rangers to patrol and monitor illegal fishing and poaching activities. At the same time, Sea Shepherd educates and builds awareness by performing outreach in the communities– even authoring a children’s book. I feel strongly that our presence here in the South Pacific could evolve into a great partnership and has sent a clear message that the door is always open on our end.