Sunday, October 10, 2010

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

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