By Dr. Stacy Jupiter
Totoya Sacred Reef Declared Marine Protected Area for World Oceans Day
This is the final blog documenting an 8-day, marine expedition to Fiji.
“We’re making history today,” Roko Josefa Cinavilakeba, the high chief (Roko Sau) of the Yasayasamoala Group, leaned over and said to me as we sped out to Totoya’s Sacred Reef.
Today, in honor of World Oceans Day, Roko Sau has declared Totoya’s first formal marine protected area (MPA). The MPA will be a no-fishing zone for the entire district, encompassing approximately four square kilometers of Totoya’s reef, including Daveta Tabu, the “sacred passage”.
“We’ve brought the communities together to restore our traditions and embrace the spirit of World Oceans Day,” Roko Sau continued. “We want to protect this reef for our youth and their future generations.”
Daveta Tabu, the sacred passage, was off-limits to fishing by chiefly decree for decades following the burial at sea of a stillborn baby to the Tongan wife of one of Roko Sau Kubunanavanua. In the mid-1990s, the previous Roko Sau lifted the ban.
However, even with the ban lifted, local fishing pressure does not appear to have made a large dent in fish populations. Due the remote location of Totoya and the rough conditions through the passage, our impression is that the fish populations are still in very healthy condition, with total biomass and diversity likely to exceed any other site surveyed in Fiji. Thus, the goal of the MPA will be to preserve these fish for the future and allow them to seed stocks for generations to come.
On Friday afternoon, Roko Sau met privately with the chiefs from each of the four villages on Totoya at the district council meeting. They agreed unanimously to reinstate the fishing ban and also to expand the area of the MPA which will serve the entire district. This agreement came as a natural step building on important work by the Fiji Department of Fisheries, who held initial management planning discussions with the communities of Totoya in March of this year.
Makareta Cinavilakeba, wife of Roko Sau, confided, “On Saturday, some of the locals tried to go out fishing by Daveta Tabu. They were thrown out of the boat by a wave. It is like our ancestors are recognizing the good work we are doing and helping us to protect the Sacred Reef.”
On the morning of the declaration, the gale force winds that ripped through the bay overnight finally quieted and the sun shined brightly overhead. Our teams from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Pacific Blue Foundation, Wetlands International-Oceania and the Waitt Institute surfaced from our last dive surveys to see a village boat from Udu village patiently awaiting the arrival of their high chief. With them were two cibicibi trees, a type of Fijian hardwood, which would be used to mark the eastern and western boundaries of the MPA.
Meanwhile, the village chiefs, church leaders and members of our expedition assembled in their finery and piled into boats for the ceremony on the reef. On our boat, the church minister from Tovu placed his hand inside a bucket of water drawn from the reef while he blessed the MPA and the people of Totoya for the wise stewardship of their resources. Then, to show his leadership, Roko Sau himself entered the water to place the first marker into the reef, with assistance from some of the strong young men.
After the second marker was placed three kilometers to the east, there was jubilation in the air. Unable to contain their excitement, chiefs and members of the expedition alike launched themselves off the boats into the water to go touch the markers to tangibly celebrate this momentous occasion. In Fiji, this action symbolizes the release of individual blessings and support for the MPA.
Roko Sau and Dr. Greg Mitchell, founder of Pacific Blue Foundation and organizer of the expedition, shook hands of congratulations and slight relief that all of their long hours of planning had paid off in a way that felt bigger than either could have imagined.
Roko Sau concluded, “We have declared the MPA for World Oceans Day for our future generations. But we also make this gesture to honor the ocean for its continued contribution to our Totoyan communities.”
Dr. Stacy Jupiter is the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Fiji Country Program. After completing a bachelor’s degree at Harvard University, she worked as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, teaching rural farmers how to build fishponds and develop sustainable agriculture. From living and working in developing communities, she became acutely aware of the environmental problems associated with overharvesting natural resources and altering land and seascapes. Her Ph.D. research through the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of Queensland focused on linkages between land use and downstream impacts to water quality and nearshore coral reefs, topics she continued to address as a postdoctoral researcher with the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. Since joining the WCS-Fiji Program in 2008, Stacy has been working on assessing the effectiveness of marine protected areas to increase the abundance and size of food fish that are important to local communities. She led the development of Fiji’s first ridge-to-reef management plan for an entire district, which is now being replicated elsewhere throughout the country. Also an artist and a writer, Stacy tries to use all forms of media to convey the importance of ocean conservation to people around the world.