Friday, October 22, 2010

Fiji Expedition: The Idea of Vanua

October 16, 2010
Friday morning dawned brighter and more hopeful than the day before, so after relocating our remaining troops (who had distributed themselves across Rakiraki) we decided to venture back across the same flooded roads we'd arrived on. Keith was hoping for clearer skies, for photography, and lower, less fierce river flows. Our first stop took us to a coastal aquaculture development project, where villagers were raising milkfish, prawns and tilapia. Milkfish are large, streamlined silvery fishes--one of the few marine relatives of the freshwater carps and minnows.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

They are very bony, but prepared properly they can be delicious (see here for notes on deboning a bangus, or milkfish), and the young are sometimes cultivated as longline bait for the tuna fishery. Adult milkfish live around reefs and lagoons across much of the Indian and Pacific oceans. Like most marine fishes, their eggs and larvae drift on ocean currents, but after a few weeks the young swim up into mangrove forests to feed and grow.

Here, villagers can catch them for grow-out in dug-out ponds. The key is that the ponds must not be constructed in the mangrove forest, for this destroys the source habitat for the young milkfish along with all the other services that mangroves provide--coastal protection, nursery for reef fishes, home for wildlife. The villagers were also experimenting with prawns and tilapia. Milkfish and certain prawns are native to Fiji, but the introduction of tilapia (an African cichlid fish) has been highly destructive to the small, brightly colored freshwater fishes unique to Fiji's rivers. Aquaculture has faced a steep uphill climb in Fiji, but the facility that we visited was enterprising, well-run, and very promising.

Milkfish pond (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Milkfish feeding frenzy (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

We had come to Ra ready for another kind of steep uphill climb, into the high ridge forests overlooking our marine study sites, but torrential rains put an end to those plans for this trip. Yep, we're wimps. Some 30 years ago, hunters for wild boar above the village of Narara stumbled across a mysterious, ancient archaeological site including 13 raised stones, and drawings and possibly writing on the walls of at least one cave. Fred Wesley, writing for the Fiji Times last December, described his journeys to the site. Granted, there are some aspects of ancient Fijian culture that we still practice and might better consider abandoning (like killing our enemies ... the fact that Fijians ate them afterwards, though unthinkable to us, was both culturally satisfying and nutritionally rational). However, there are others we ought to consider resurrecting in force.

Narara village (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

One of these more laudable cultural threads is the concept of vanua--a unity of land, sea and people as part of a common, interwoven and interdependent cosmos. This is very similar to the Hawaiian management system of ahupua'a. Both are common sense, and bolstered by strong science. The natural unit of function in all coastal regions is the watershed, from ridgetop to the outermost influences of coastal species and processes, which is a point way out at sea.

Whatever bad things you do in the vanua will come back to you and be visited upon everyone. On the other hand the ecological and social bonds within the local vanua are strong, and if you do good, that will come back and have visible effects in short order. The logic scales up: vanua are hierarchical, nested within each other on up to the world as a whole. What you do, comes back to you. This was probably the principal lesson of the research that Stacy and I have been involved in over the past several years. It is a lesson reinforced by Fiji's unique coral reef and river fishes, just as it is by the muddy plumes hurtling down from naked hillsides and curling out to sea in the wake of yesterday's downpour.

We could see the elements of vanua well on our trek home. From a coastal vantage point near Ra, we looked out to sea, past villages and headlands, to a tiny, dark, ghostly speck on the horizon: the island of Vatu-i-Ra, the "bird island" that we had explored above and below water with all our friends and shipmates on the Nai'a. Ridge to reef in a single eyeshot. Indeed, more than few of the seabirds foraging about the headlands of Ra today might well roost this night, and every night, among the Pisonia trees of Vatu-i-Ra.

View of Vatu-i-Ra from Rakiraki District headland (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Turning inland, we mounted the coastal ridge of Nakurotubu, a mountainous divide covered by one of Fiji's largest tracts of native forest. This was the site of a Conservation International rapid species assessment. This forest also lies at the above-water epicenter of the northeast Viti Levu section of our Fiji "islandscape." The species survey reinforced the sense of isolation and self-containment within Fiji, but with strong linkages across habitats: nearly two-thirds of the ant species of Nakorotubu Mountain (ants are a useful ecological indicator) are unique to the area.

What a difference a day makes! Contrasting moods at the edge of the Nakurotubu Forest (Photos: Keith Ellenbogen)

It is not just ants that make Nakorotubu special; the place is full of Fiji's endemic birds and plants, along with all other possible life forms, each with its members unique to this place. When we stopped briefly at a government office for some business, I wandered off to the edge of a clearing to clear my own mind in the forest. I heard a strange call... like a small dog being strangled... familiar but unplaceable. Moments later, a searing flash of yellow whizzed by, trailing a blurred wake of surreal intensity: Viti Levu's golden dove. Too fast for a photo, the bird burned an indelible memory.

As we headed down out of the highlands, we noted that the water level in the brooks had gone down and they were now babbling and clear instead of roaring and muddy.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

We circled in and out along the coast, out to a headland, and in to a valley mangrove forest, out and in. The Bruguiera mangroves cast an atmosphere of impenetrable mystery in the fog, a rich, dark tangle of trunks mirrored by placid waters. The surrounding mudflat was a metropolis of kinked pneumatophores, breathing roots that rise above the mud to bring oxygen down to airless spaces.

Coastal village (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Bruguiera mangrove forest (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

All too soon we were back in Suva and hailing a cab from the University of the South Pacific campus back to Five Princes Hotel, to be hosted once more by Roderick Evers and Tarei Weeks. We recounted our adventures and visit to Future Forests (narrowly missing Roderick there, as it turns out), and talked about forests and reefs in Fiji. The next morning, our last, I sat vigil on the veranda to photograph collared lory and butterflies in the garden while Keith hit the crafts market, waiting for my colleague Meo Semesi to arrive for breakfast.

(Photo: Les Kaufman)

Meo has been a core member of the Marine Management Area Science (MMAS) study team since its inception in Fiji, and is now considering going on from his masters at the University of the South Pacific in natural products chemistry, for a doctoral degree. One of his keenest interests is the science underlying the vanua concept. We talked for hours about his future, and that of all of Fiji, and the possible relationship between the two. We agreed to launch a Vanua Working Group to carry forward and expand upon the dreams articulated by a stream of senior conservation scientists, Fijian and expat, all of whom have seen the same light. With this resolution in place, the research and conservation objectives of the 2010 New England Aquarium-Monterey Bay Aquarium Fiji Expedition were completed. Reluctantly, we left for Nausori Airport, and the beginning of a long, multilegged trek back to the eastern U.S., Keith to New York, and me to Boston to rejoin Bailey and catch up once more with Mark.

Touchdown in Boston also brought field work for the 5-year MMAS program of Conservation International to a close. Usually these moments are bittersweet, but there was nothing bitter about this one. We had succeeded in completing 50 discrete studies of 73 marine management areas in 23 countries, partnered with more than 100 institutions and over 200 individuals (not counting whole villages). No wonder I was so tired before this trip. Many partners still have large, ongoing sister efforts, like Stacy's work with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and work in the Phoenix Islands pioneered by Bailey with the New England Aquarium.

Scientific papers, outreach booklets, films, and television spots are flowing. We have plenty of data yet to pore through and learn from. What we have learned already has resculpted the missions of many of the participating institutions, not the least, CI. CI has, since its inception, championed the preservation of biological diversity on Earth, by laboring to arrest the mass extinction now underway. What it had not done explicitly before, is to link to human welfare as an essential term in the overall equation of survival. Undoubtedly the Fiji Islandscape will help teach us how. From ridgetop to tabu (marine reserve, as discussed in this previous post) in Nakorotubu, to Dr. Webster's transect on Mount Mutiny, and out across Bligh Water. From Namena in Kubalau past the friendly village of Kiobo and up to the forested ridgetops above it. We have paced the perimeter of our window on the future, our vanua, in the heart of Fiji.

All of the expedition members are now home or already off on other adventures. Some have reported in with greetings, pictures and anecdotes. Sam Campbell donated all of his video from the trip, and we plan to work together with the Nai'a crew to standardize documentation of change over time in the regularly visited on her peregrinations.

The expedition is over.

Expedition team (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

The journey has just begun.

Les Kaufman, PhD

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fiji Expedition: The Future of Trees on Viti Levu

Viti Levu - October 15, 2010
While everybody else packed off to Nadi International Airport, Stacy, Keith and I packed--and I do mean packed--into a station wagon taxi with all our gear for the drive east along the Coral Coast, toward our final adventure on this expedition. Keith and I checked in for a decompression stop in Pacific Harbor at a favorite spot called "The Uprising." Stacy soldiered back to Suva to embrace reality. Rain had started and quickly grown torrential. Stoic cruise ship visitors paraded by in the rain, barely clad and in fleshy abundance, as Fijian farmers coast to coast celebrated a welcome reprieve from the cursed grip of drought. There would be crops in the dry West of Viti Levu. There would be food and trade, after all.

Conservation International’s demonstration nursery for native Fijian trees, in Rakiraki on the north coast of the island Viti Levu. (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

That night our guests for dinner were James Comley of the University of the South Pacific, and Stacy. James heralded the reconvening of the Fiji Marine Management Area Science Team for a two-day venture to our study area on the north coast of Viti Levu, to be documented photographically by Keith Ellenbogen. This area is actually the first landfall south of our dive trek through Bligh Water, and those waters are largely claimed within the qoliqoli, or marine management areas, of the villages along this coast. Soon our rented HiLux truck was jammed to the gills with people, gear, and waka for our village visits, and we were off, en-sheathed in rain.

There is a reason they call this a "rain"forest! The rented HiLux comes through for us, if just barely. (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

The villages we were visiting are all participants in a plan to restore the coastal native rainforest of northeastern Viti Levu, in the Nokoratubu and Rakiraki districts. These lovely, scenic hills, drenched in magnificent forest within the memories of village elders, now stand stark naked, crisped by frequent fires set in accidents and bouts of boredom. When rain pours from the sky, mud pours from the land into the sea, Earth’s blood shed away carrying precious nutrients that would otherwise have nourished a dalo plant or a tree, and in turn, the people of Fiji. That mud slides over coastal reefs, cutting off the sun, choking corals and their associated denizens, and fueling harmful algal blooms.

Vesi seedlings ready for outplanting in areas slated for native forest restoration. (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

There is a solution: put the trees back. Restore the native forest. Keep steeps and highlands and river corridors under old, closed-canopy forest. Rebuild corridors from mountaintop to beach to maintain all of Fiji's beautiful animal and plant species--a quarter to a third of which or more occur nowhere else in the world. Further enhance forest services by including extensive plantings of commercial timber as one of the crops. Food crops will be freer of pests as birds and other farmers' friends mass in the adjacent plantation and natural forests. The beauty of the scenic landscape will be restored as well, boosting tourism and revitalizing Fijian culture. So many trees have been cut that great forest trees that play a crucial role in traditional practices and arts have been brought to the verge of extinction in Fiji. Fiji forests host hundreds of woody plant species, many providing fruits to eat, flowers to string on welcoming garlands, and gorgeous woods. No tree is more emblematic of this threat than the beloved (and beloved to death) vesi, known to scientists as Intsia bijuga.

A newborn vesi (Intsia bijuga) arches gracefully from between its two cotyledons, or "first leaves." Cotyledons are the plant counterpart of egg yolk. (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Vesi seeds ready for planting. (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Vesi is one of the lofty and majestic rainforest trees in a group of plant families closely related to the common garden pea. It is from large vesi trees that artisans carve the tanoa, or kava bowl (seen in this previous post), that is the most familiar icon of Fijian hospitality, philosophy and way of life. Its beautiful and durable wood is the luxurious wainscoting of Fiji’s built environment.

After a new planting field has been laid out and cleared, planting proceeds by first loosening the soil to ready it for its new inhabitant. (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Accompanying vesi in the CI nursery are at least a dozen other popular and important native tree species. One is the great dakua or Pacific kauri, royal conifer of Fiji ridgetops. Ivi or Polynesian chestnut is another. Lowland rivers are naturally sheltered by ivi, whose lovely russet buttresses paint and shape the riverside, and support a lush canopy that annually bears bumper crops of prized edible nuts. Ivi also dangles its roots like wet toes in the river, creating habitat for brilliantly hued freshwater gobies new to science and unique to Fiji; some exist in only a single river or watershed.

The young tree is loosened from its plastic planting bag, then placed gently in the newly prepared hole and the rich black soil tamped down around it. (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Native trees are not the only species planted; nearby, with help from Forests for the Future, teak are mass-produced as a crop that delivers far more than cash. Forests for the Future is the brainchild of Rodrick Evers, who co-owns and manages the Five Princes Hotel (where we stay in Suva) with his wife Tari, daughter of a former high official in Kiribati when it was under British rule (see Aquarium blogs about Kiribati and the Phoenix Islands). Carefully rotated instead of being cut down all at once, teak like any tree can help prevent erosion and topsoil loss. As we learn more about intercropping and polyculture, teak can also provide an additional habitat with value for wildlife and endangered species, a valuable second string to native forest. Also, teak prefers drier conditions than most native rainforest species, and can be used as a habitat buffer around the periphery of native and restored rainforest.

The past few years have seen a burst in reforestation activities in Fiji, linked to both biodiversity conservation, and long-term human welfare. Fiji has launched a campaign to plant a million trees, an excellent start in reclaiming the legions of scorched hills for nature’s life support system. Conservation International and the Institute of Applied Science (University of the South Pacific) have been collaborating with local villages, encouraging residents to germinate seeds of diverse and useful native trees and grow them out to bring new life to the bare, burned hills. A close partner in this work is Fiji Water. Bottled water is an environmentally controversial commodity, so Fiji Water is striving to achieve a carbon-negative operation (remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it generates in the bottling and shipping of water). It is doing so by preserving native forest and adding to the forest estate of Fiji through new planting. We visited several of the cooperating villages, shared kava and songs, fawned together over the rows of young trees under innovative bamboo nursery shelters, and laughed and joked in the pouring rain.

Kava and beer win hands down in the village, but our preferred beverage for the field was Fiji Water. This particular bottle was a gift from one of James Comley’s intrepid disciples at USP, who chased us down in the field for some urgent statistical advice. The Fiji Water company has supported 1,000 hectares of forest restoration over four years, a part of its strategy to offset the carbon footprint of bottled water by increasing and maintaining carbon sequestration in forest, but with benefits. Besides reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide a tiny bit, the new trees bring huge local benefits for biodiversity conservation, soil conservation, water management, tourism, and protection of marine habitats including coral reef. Equally important, the restoration of native forest heals a rent in the heart of Fijian culture. (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

We also journeyed to a planting area, taking three robust young vesi with us to make our own small contribution to the replanting effort. What we witnessed was the opening strains of a symphony in which each bar is written just before it is played. The tiny seedlings, thrust from their comfortable nurseries into open grassland, shoot roots deep into the ground and throw branches to the sky, year by year transforming dry grass back into wet forest. As they grow, they interact with each other, the water table, the soil, and the sky, gradually recreating an environment hospitable to hundreds of other Fijian plant, animal, fungal and microbial species, and inviting them all to come forth from their precarious hold-outs in tiny remnant forest patches, and spread in their full glory out across the Fijian landscape once again.

It is an act as inspiring as science fiction accounts of the terraforming of alien planets, and every bit as bold. Nor do we yet know much about the way life weaves its larger tapestry here on Earth, let alone on Mars. The calling forth of forest in Fiji is a giant experiment in ecology, and a test of the marriage of people to earth and sea. There will be setbacks, and much will be learned, but with the necessary will there is no reason to expect anything but success; success in some continuously evolving form.

I finish planting my first vesi, inspiring the sudden Fijian nickname "Lesi Vesi." This has unfortunately stuck. My main contribution is on the fish and coral end of things, but closing the loop from reef to forest inspires and informs the efforts offshore in a very personal way. Every marine biologist should midwife a tree now and then in the watersheds that loom above his or her study sites. (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Planting the little vesi had special significance for me, for this was the first time I'd pushed my hands into the Earth to nurture new life, since my own new life began with a bone marrow transplant from my sister four years ago. Along with all the wonderful things that soil holds are a world of pathogens, but I supposed that my adopted immune system was ready for the challenge.

Les Mains Sales! Tree planting is an existential statement. (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

What a fine way to rejoin my fellow stewards!

-Les Kaufman, PhD

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fiji Expedition: Something's Fishy at Mt. Mutiny

Mt. Mutiny - Oct 10, 2010, 7 a.m.
As I peered down from the summit of Mt. Mutiny, my world was awash in color. Brilliant magenta soft coral polyps extended to pull the plankton from the water column. Hard corals in shades of purple, turquoise, pinks and even neon orange fought for territory for the precious little space on the seamount surrounded by an abyss of blue water down to 3,000 feet. [Note: For more background on seamounts, read this post.] Yet despite the stunning natural beauty of the coral communities, all was not well on the mountain.

Corals abound on the summit of Mt. Mutiny. (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

A reef with such dense coral fauna and structural complexity should be teeming with fish. In an intact system, the small filter feeders, such as the brilliant orange and purple anthias dotting the reef walls, attract larger prey species such as grouper and emperor, while sharks silently prowl below and schooling barracuda hover above. But here on Mt. Mutiny, the top part of the food chain has been severed.

Although the NAI'A crew say that they have not encountered fishing boats on this site, they must slip in unsighted when no other ships are around to reap their bounty. Based on my observations, the gear of choice is probably spearguns. At night, large parrotfish and surgeonfish become sitting ducks, so to speak, as they sleep among shallow reef crevices. They are easily picked off by spearfishers in large quantities.

Coral fan garden on the flanks of Mt. Mutiny (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

But in typical Darwinian fashion, the survivors adapt. In this race of survival of the fittest, the fittest fish, those that live to see the next group of NAI'A divers, are those that have taken refuge in depths below the 100 ft. These depths are inaccessible to all but the best breath-holders. While the habitat may be of lesser quality for foraging, it at least allows the fish to see another day. To see for myself, I plunged to 110 feet and was happy to find parrotfish cleaning turf algae off the reef and surgeonfish picking plankton out of the water, though all warily keeping their distance.

The Wildlife Conservation Society has been undertaking studies to investigate this depth refuge hypothesis. In 2009, our researchers conducted a series of surveys using stereo baited remote underwater video cameras (sBRUVs) on protected and unprotected reefs in the region. Placing bait with the camera rigs allowed us to see a much higher density of predatory fish than we would typically find using traditional SCUBA surveys and to investigate much deeper depths. What we have found is that outside protected areas, there are still considerably large populations of fish way down deep which are naturally protected by hiding out at depths which fishers cannot reach.

Scant fish life on the steep slopes (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

In order to bring the fish back to Mt. Mutiny and up from the depths, urgent management action is needed. However, the types of management required will have to set new precedents. Mt. Mutiny is unique among the NAI'A dive sites in that it is one of the few locations that falls outside of traditional fisheries management areas (qoliqolis). This excludes opportunities for customary management by communities. However, the national Protected Area Committee (on which I sit as an active member) is eager to investigate opportunities for offshore protection. A first step would be to ensure that fishing using any gear which targets deeper reefs is banned from the area. A second step would be to establish a strict nature reserve, targeting the unique seamounts scattered across Bligh Waters as a step towards World Heritage area listing.

My vision for the next 5 years is to energize conservation and management across this exceptionally rich seascape in Fiji so that next time I return the upper slopes of Mt. Mutiny will once again be teeming with fish life.

Stacy Jupiter, PhD

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fiji Expedition: Mantapalooza

Lagoon’s North end, Island of Gau- October 7, 2010 3:30 p.m.

With the third day of cold (cold in Fiji defines as below 80 °F), rain beating down, and the wind at this point a constant companion, the bunch of us head out for this late afternoon dive are already shivering and maybe even a bit weary.

The dive sites are the well known Jim's Alley (named after a pioneering underwater photographer, Jim Church) and Anthias Pinnacle (named for the abundant clouds of small, colorful plankton-eating relatives of groupers). The sites are situated such that two skiffs of divers are spread out, but still fairly close, which enables the skiff skippers to communicate almost by shouting, allowing the radios to remain in their covered metal holsters during the driving rain. These dive locations are typically known as macro lens-friendly (small critters) shoots. Today's lens choice was exactly that for all of our photographers because of the poor conditions for wide angle (whole landscape) shots. Why, in detail: The lagoon's tide was running out, laden with plankton and spooge (sea snot, fish poop, and tons of weenie stuff that requires a microscope to ID it), and it all contributes to a crummy 30' of visibility; dramatically different than the 150' we experienced at Nigali Passage (as seen in this post) during the morning.

Just as we arrive Sr. Dive Master Mo slips over the side to check on the ferocity of the current, and immediately returns shouting "Manta! Manta!" Unfortunately, he adds that it's swimming away fast. Oh, well. Figures that an iconic, dynamic, squared-away animal such as Manta birostris would be headed for parts seemingly more upbeat/attractive than where we were about to spend the next hour.

Although the photo equipment used during the dive was all set for macro shooting, these stills from video footage by Sam Campbell show the how close divers came to the manta rays (Stills: Sam Campbell)

The skiff drivers give us the command to roll into the water, and the 12 of us are soon dropping down to 65' to begin our hour. Faces down, we make our rounds slowly looking for the little things that a quick scanning eye often misses. Mo points out small clear shrimp, some nudibranchs, and other bits, but I soon break off to look (unsuccessfully) for an odd-looking arrowhead soapfish Belanoperca chabanaudi that was found here on the '09 expedition. [Note: check out the post about this area from the 2009 expedition here.]

 Looking down the mouth of one impressive filter feeder (Photos: Mark Rosenstein)

Certainly all of our grandmothers generally said the same thing regarding being a sour puss. And in that vane, things were about to change in a big hurry. Apparently the entire time most of us had our faces buried in the reef looking for weenie sized things, 50' over our heads at least half a dozen large (6' +) mantas were racing back and forth between Jim's and Anthias sucking in all that spoogey, crummy, low vis water we were all silently or quite loudly complaining about. And pretty much about the same time, all of us with barely any air left in our tanks realize 'there be mantas up thar!' A mad scramble ensues to get off the bottom into the water column and point cameras at critters really too big for the mismatched lenses being aimed at them.

In our exuberance we exhaust any air in our tanks and have to pass off our scuba kit to the skiff drivers. Now confined to the surface by a snorkel, the wind driven waves crash over our heads and swamp those snorkels. Who cares about all that choking and sea water being swallowed?! No one.

Everyone is laughing, whooping, cheering, and making giddy squeaking sounds generally heard from preschoolers, as four, then five, then six large mantas do loop after loop, barrel rolls, and race to the surface to slap it with their huge pectoral fins. Newfound energy is in abundant supply as we NAI’A divers kick hard down hard away from the surface to be right in amongst the impressively choreographed, gracefully swooping mantas. Huge bodies come within inches of one another as they systematically filter feed on the plankton chowder doubling as seawater. Ineffective cameras flash. Pictures are shot despite everyone knowing that it is likely for naught; the act likely being a reflex reaction by now. As the minutes pass, we shout to one another on the surface about the lack of proof we'll have when the retelling of this story starts.

 Stormy seas around Gau (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Resident sketch artist, Stacy Jupiter, displaying impressions of the barrel rolling mantas
(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

The local Gau villagers have shared with the NAI'A over the years that on rainy days, they have witnessed the mantas in their large lagoon frolicking. So, remember, your grandmother knew what she was talking about.

Although it is not illegal to fish for manta (a totem for many tribes) in Fiji, they are likely targeted by fishermen for overseas markets.


Fiji Expedition: Sharks, Wrasses, and Reefs near the Island of Gau

Gau - October 8, 2010
The weather is slowly improving, and the diving has remained superb. Yesterday evening, we were joined by manta rays in the late evening, and they continued to appear sporadically today. With the new moon, currents have picked up. The swoosh swirls clouds of zooplankton-eating fishes up into the water column, inflates day-glo soft coral forests, and calls larger predators, and theirs, larger still, into the circus. The majesty of motion is at its best on the incoming tide in Nigali Passage, near the island of Gau (pronounced "Now"). The walls of the Passage are dotted with coral bommies festooned all about by soft coral bonsai forests. The floor is a strange, open, rubbley-sand moonscape; Richie took off his flippers and made bounding leaps about it to heighten the effect.

Richie takes off his flippers. (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Added to its scenic charms, the Passage is a pupping ground for grey reef shark, and a regular gathering place for adults. Here, an astonishing three to four dozen sharks circle within the channel, with perhaps half of these neonates and early juveniles. Flanking the greys are reef white-tips, and midwater clouds of snapper, jack, surgeon and other fishes. The circus atmosphere is compounded by the odd sight of a half dozen or more divers sitting comfortably amongst coral bommies on an arena-like reef that faces the channel, affectionately called the "Bleachers" by those who regularly dive here. Once tiring of the show, a diver can float out of the bleacher seats and allow himself to be swept into the lagoon and up onto the back-reef aprons, where lay lush coral gardens. A field of foliaceous corals earns the name "Cabbage Patch."

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

On a more serious note, we have been watching the behavior of the grey reef shark for signs of parental defense of young, a striking phenomenon that I’ve seen at Johnston Atoll and has also been reported from Palau. In the channel it is hard to tell if this is happening, the place is so glutted with sharks of all sizes. Keith and I have continued our work with the fluorescence filters, finding new examples where it could possibly serve as a coral health diagnostic tool. Ease of operation has shifted from night to day, with our best results now coming from stopped-down photographs taken through the appropriate filters, in the daytime. For me the information content is rich-I can see growth horizons, lesion repair, competitive interactions, and young corals. To Keith it brings a deep well of artistic possibilities that he has now begun to explore in earnest.

Les and Keith with the fluorescence filter equipment.

One of our most remarkable observations today were those of Bailey and Keith, who chanced upon a group of 9 medium-sized Napoleon wrasse. Napoleons get huge--over a meter long and built like a barn door. Given the high demand for their lips and meat in Asian markets. These swimming advertisements for coral reef health have grown rare anywhere that fishing is on the agenda. The ones seen today were small to medium sized, say about half a meter, but they were numerous- very good signs. It is possible for this to happen because of the remoteness of these reefs, plus the actions of the near by Namena Marine Park. Enforced no-fishing in tabu zones is bearing fruit (mentioned in this previous post). This approach captures several closely linked ideas about how best to harmonize coastal villages with nature, how to weave people into a sustainable landscape tapestry, and how to ensure and sustain a good quality of life. The ideas may be called “ridge to reef,” or "ecosystem-based management," or "adaptive management."

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

They are just branches of a main trunk philosophy of life that can be traced back through many centuries to indigenous management systems. These sustainability systems were developed through trial and error learning over many generations. More recently, the founding ideas have been formalized through two schools of thought: the Resilience School, and the discipline of Ecological Economics. The science now exists that can enable people to live well by doing good, by observing simple stewardship principles. Living this way can save money, alleviate suffering, and prevent society from destroying natural systems, thus maintaining the values delivered by nature for future generations. In this way of living, Fiji stands proud as a premier vacation and tourism destination, but equally as a wonderful place to live as a Fijian.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

There is an alternative way to go. In this scenario, the human population of Fiji is much higher--all the islands are crowded and overburdened. Fiji functions as a stop on the global travel circuit, much like any other beach resort destination. There are low-paying jobs, high-rise hotels, and a massive guest service industry; some find work in supportive industries such as crafts and tourism.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Even so, the jobs are never enough and offer little by way of advancement. The land is denuded, the mangroves are history, the fishes are gone, and the coral is dead. However, when financial winds blow, a happy few grow very, very rich. This is not our own favorite option, and to judge from the popularity of the FLMMA network (Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area Network) the idea of liquidating Fiji’s natural resources for short term gains is not popular among Fijians, either.

-Les Kaufman, PhD

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fiji Expedition: SHARK!

This guest post is written by 2010 Joint Aquarium Fiji Expedition team member Nicole Guy-Lovett.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Gau - October 7, 2010
SHARK! ... The goal of the day and the reason for coming to the Nigali passage off the Island of Gau. We rose at our normal time of 6:30 a.m. for the 7 a.m. dive, only to find that the current was running out of the passage, not in. Change of plan, dive preparation delayed until 9:30. So ... the wonderful staff on the Nai’a rushed breakfast for us and we were able to eat our French toast with blueberry compote and fresh fruit an hour early in order that we could still fit in two dives before lunch. Bailey entertained some of us with a taxonomic dissection of a large flying fish that leapt to its death into one of the skiffs during our overnight trip from Namena to Gau.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

We arrived at the drop sight about 10 a.m. ... Bottoms up! About 15 seconds in we sighted our first grey reef shark. 1, 2, 3 ... suddenly 6 sharks were circling. A larger school of barracuda greeted us at the bottom as our shark escorts began to take a wider birth. A school of lovely blue streak fusiliers swam by adding some color to the scene. As we worked our way to the passage a sleeping white tip drew the attention of the photographers in the group.

Soon we reached the "bleachers" and hunkered down out of the strong current to watch the sharks make their way through the channel and then turn back to start over again. Some would zip by showing their agility and speed, others slunk by only feet away fixing us warily with a cat-like eye. Oddly enough all the sharks were female--Nai’a staff claim they have never seen male gray reef sharks here. A couple of our scientists aboard are trying to explain this phenomenon.

It was soon clear to my novice eye how more experienced observers can readily tell individuals apart; different markings, fin shapes, and scars allowed me to recognize many repeat visitors. Our view was temporarily occluded by hordes of fish, yellow, white, black, purple, blue, and green which crowded in to snatch bread from our dive guide, the Mighty Mo. They were followed by a school of snaggle-toothed bohar snapper that were so close I could have given them an oral exam. When the fish cleared the sharks seemed to be even more numerous. There were schools of the adorable 18 inch pups followed by imposing but graceful adults as large as 6 feet. Later Bailey said he counted 25 sharks at one time including at least 19 pups, but I couldn’t count that fast.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

All too soon it was time to warm our chilled muscles and work our way up the chute from 60 feet to 20. Along the way I saw a large moray eel at a cleaning station and a wide field of slender garden eel feeding avidly on nutrients passing in the current. It was now time to search for macro life while allowing our bodies to off-gas (adjust to the decreased pressure) before returning to the boat. We explored a sandy plain at the base of an ancient (30ft in diameter) Porites coral . There were numerous Steintz’ shrimpgobies guarding alpheid shrimp busily cleaning house. The 2-inch long, translucent shrimp diligently moved stones and armloads of sand half their size out of the holes which they share with their stalwart guards. More garden eels entertained us snatching their tiny bites from the sea. A few divers even had the luck to watch a sea snake slither amongst the rocks.

Tired but exhilarated, I surfaced after my first shark dive. One hour till we do it all again!

-Nicole Guy-Lovett, Washington DC

Fiji Expedition: How Are the Corals Doing?

This is a guest post by Dr. Steve Webster, Senior Marine Biologist and one of the founders of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He and Bailey are the two chief point person's for the Joint Aquarium Fiji Expedition.

Healthy corals (Photo: Steve Webster)

Corals in the tropical Indo-Pacific are often living near their upper limit of temperature tolerance. When an El Niño, or other warming event, arrives, the corals are stressed and they often respond by expelling their symbiotic dinoflagellates algae (zooxanthellae). Because the zooxanthellae usually impart most of the color to the coral tissue the colonies without their zooxanthellae turn bone white. Depending on the severity of the rise in sea surface temperature, and/or its duration, the corals may recover and be re-inoculated with their symbionts or they may not. In which case they die. 

Unhealthy corals (Photo: Steve Webster)

During 1997/98 a powerful El Niño bathed Fiji’s waters in unusually high temperatures and the effects appeared to be devastating. Easily 80 percent of the corals bleached giving the reefs a ghostly and ghastly appearance. It seemed inconceivable that the reefs would ever recover.

In the intervening years the reefs have exhibited an encouraging recovery. Today the reefs of Vatu-I-Ra are looking very healthy. Some older colonies have recovered, and young new recruits are thriving. Although there is ample evidence of the old, dead colonies, covered in filamentous cyanobacteria and algae, the living corals are doing well, in some locations providing virtually 100 percent cover of the substrate. [Note: You can read about similar examples of coral bleaching and recovery from the 2009 Phoenix Islands Expedition from Dr. David Obura here and from Dr. Les Kaufman here.]

Will future bleaching events become more frequent and more severe as global warming continues? In all likelihood, they will. The hope is that if other stressors of the reef community (overfishing, coastal development and pollution, logging, etc.) are eliminated by integrated ridge-to-reef management, the reef communities will be better able to recover from the inevitable bleaching events. That’s what makes the WCS and CI marine programs, and the buy-in of the villages and chiefs in this area so important to the future of Fiji’s reefs.

Heathy corals (Photo: Steve Webster)

One of our New England Aquarium/Monterey Bay Aquarium initiatives in support of this work is the creation of a permanent transect study site on Mt. Mutiny in the Vatu-I-Ra area. Each year we run video and still photo sampling techniques along this line from about 2 meters to 20 meters deep on the steeply sloping reef at Mt. Mutiny. As these data accumulate we will be building a solid baseline with which to compare future changes on the reef. Fish and coral diversity and density will be documented, as well as growth rates and health of individual coral colonies. This will provide us the opportunity to monitor the responses of the reef community to the changes that will likely occur over the next few years and decades.

Steve Webster PhD
Senior Marine Biologist (retired)
Monterey Bay Aquarium

Fiji Expedition: Kiobo Village Visit

This is a guest post from 2010 Joint Aquarium Fiji Expedition team member Simone Mortan, Manager of Guide Programs at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Kiobo Village - 5:00 p.m. October 6, 2010
What an amazingly special treat tonight when we got to visit Kiobo village which is in Kubulau District. The visit was arranged by Dr. Stacy Jupiter who is working with these villagers as part of the Ecosystem-Based Management work supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society (see her earlier post).

Leaving NAI'A for the village (Photos: Keith Ellenbogen)

We arrived at the village by skiff around 5:00 p.m. and the entire village turned out on the beach to greet us with music and leis. The welcoming words of "Bula bula!" were shouted out to us and each of us was warmly greeted with firm handshakes by the village people.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

The young children stood off a bit at first until Bruce Thayer starting handing out small hacky sack size soccer balls and then the games began. Bailey and one of the young boys had a game of catch; while another young boy seemed to think the ball made a good mouthful ... he looked a bit like a kid seeing how many marshmallows he could stuff into his mouth. (You can read accounts of the 2009 village visit from Bruce Thayer here and Jody Renouf here).

Lovo pit (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

We were taken through the village to visit the lovo pit, a large pit maybe 6 feet square with very hot rocks that had been prepared. Our dinner of pork, lamb, and chicken was wrapped in coconut palm fronds and laid on top of breadfruit and cassava that formed the first layer of the dinner cooking on the rocks. Finally the whole pile of cooking food was covered with a variety of leaves. First it was palm fronds, followed by banana leaves and finally covered with a very broad leaf. Theresa, one of our Kiobo hosts, explained that the leaves helped to keep the food clean as well and provide a cap so that the food could steam. The final layer of leaves was held in place with large logs laid around the perimeter of the pile.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

From there we were led into the bure (the village's central gathering place) for the ceremonial welcome and presentation of gifts. Mo, NAI'A's Senior Dive Master, acted as our spokesman and we were represented by our "chiefs," Dr. Webster and Bailey. After some formal words of gratitude for their hospitality and welcome by Tui Kubulau, we all introduced ourselves with many expressing gratitude both for their hospitality but also for the way they are taking such good care of the reefs in this region.

Kava (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Then it was on to the kava* ceremony called sevusevu. Dr. Webster and Bailey were the first to be offered the kava. A single clap of the hands is the tradition before taking the cup (coconut shell) and then it's bottoms up followed by 3 more claps. Once the chiefs from our group and the village had all been served, the kava was offered to everyone else and the music and dancing began. Tui Kubulau played a 12 string guitar and was joined by NAI'A's talented guitar-playing Mo and several others.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

The music ranged from traditional Fijian songs to the Beatles, Jimmy Buffet and the Eagles. Imagine our surprise when the village women presented us with trays of cakes, breadfruit, and complete tea service! It seemed as though we could have stayed and partied all night with them and not worn out our welcome, but it was time to board the skiffs and return to the NAI'A to enjoy the dinner cooked in the lovo pit and start our long southerly transit tonight from this area to the island of Gau (pronounced 'now'). I hope I can return to Fiji again someday to re-experience the warmth and welcome of these wonderful people.

*kava is a drink made from a pepper plant root; it considered to be mildly narcotic

Simone Mortan
Manager of Guide Programs
Monterey Bay Aquarium