Fiji Chiefs Create Marine Sanctuaries on World's Third Largest Reef

SUVA, Fiji, November 4, 2005 (ENS) - Local chiefs of Fijiís Great Sea Reef have established the first of a series of Marine Protected Areas that will form one of the worldís largest networks of marine sanctuaries.

The chiefs in the Macuata province Thursday announced five protected areas that include permanent taboo zones, where no fishing or harvesting of other marine resources is permitted. Macuata province is in the north central region of Fiji's Vanua Levu island.

In recognition of this protective effort, the global conservation organization WWF presented its Conservation Leadership Award to Fijiís government and the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Areas network members for their commitment to sustainable management of Fijiís natural resources.

"Fijiís commitment to Marine Protected Areas makes it an international leader in marine conservation," said Etika Rupeni, WWF Fiji's country program manager.


Sunset over Fijian waters (Photo courtesy Safari Lodge Fiji)
The Fiji Locally Managed Marine Areas network has inspired marine conservation by working with 40 traditional fishing communities since 2000.

Covering more than 200,000 square kilometers (77,220 square miles), the Great Sea Reef, locally known as the Cakaulevu Reef, is inhabited by thousands of marine species, many of them found nowhere else on Earth.

The Great Sea Reef is the third largest reef system in the world, behind Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Mesoamerican Reef along the coast of Central America.

Little charted or explored, the Great Sea Reef revealed a host of new species to scientists on a 12 day long survey in December 2004.

The expedition was led by WWF scientists, and included divers from Wetlands International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the University of the South Pacific Institute of Applied Science, Fiji's Ministry of Fisheries, local community members and international experts, with financial support from the Vodafone ATH Fiji Foundation.

The 20 scientists recorded a new species of damselfish, Pomacentrus sp., and 43 new hard coral species.

They explored unique mangrove island habitats, and learned more about threatened species such as green turtles and spinner dolphins.


A new species of damselfish, Pomacentrus sp., was found on the Great Sea Reef. (Photo © Helen Sykes courtesy WWF)
The survey also identified threats to the Great Sea Reef, including overfishing and poaching by illegal fishers, poison fishing, sand dredging and development.

The Great Sea Reef conservation effort delivers on Fijiís commitment to establish a network of Marine Protected Areas covering 30 percent of the countryís waters by the year 2020.

The WWF says that Fijiís commitment to manage close to 39 million hectares (150,579 square miles) of its water as Marine Protected Areas, will make it one of the largest such networks in the world.

ďThe Cakaulevu Reef is one of Fijiís hidden gems and it is essential that we find out how we can manage it more effectively and how the people can conserve their resources and their livelihoods in the long-term," said Rupeni.

ďProtecting the reef will ensure that one of our greatest assets remains intact and continues to be an important part of the traditions, culture and livelihoods of the people of Fiji,Ē she said.

"The community is grateful for this support," said Paramount Chief of the Macuata Province Ratu Aisea Katonivere. "We hope it will begin the journey to bring back the richness of these once plentiful waters - not only for ourselves, but also for our children."

Ratu Aisea said his province has put in place fines for people who will not follow the ban. A fine of FJD$3,000 (US$1,752) will be imposed on any boat found fishing in a Marine Protected Area. If the fine is not paid in eight days, local officials will use a boat to police the protected area, he said.

Policing such a large area is not easy. The more than 300 islands of the Fiji archipelago are scattered over a 1.3 million square kilometer area. More than 98 percent of Fijiís territory is ocean and more than 80 percent of Fijiís 800,000 plus residents live along the coast.

Fijiís economy depends on its foreign exchange earnings from fisheries and tourism, and Fiji's marine resources are important to customary marine owners who rely on the reefs for subsistence and a source of income.