Conservation in Fiji - Monthly Update - March - April 2015
Another fantastic two months at the Shark Conservation Project in Fiji! For the last two months our volunteers have been participating in shark tagging with the University of the South Pacific in order to try identify nursery grounds for scalloped hammerhead sharks in Rewa River. For our Dirty Day, we helped The Happy Homes complete construction for their new building and painted a community hall in a local village called Culanuku. We also participated in a beach cleanup, attended a reggae concert for Earth Hour and had the pleasure of hosting our Deputy Director of Operations, Anne Buglass. We heard through the coconut wireless that she had a great time!
This month we also celebrated Easter and the volunteers cooked a traditional dinner and organised an Egg Hunt. We were also fortunate enough to be visited by Angelo Villagomez who is the Global Shark Conservation Manager for PEW Charitable Trust, Founder of Shark Defenders and the Shark Stanley Children's book.
We had a few close calls with some cyclones passing by Fiji, but were lucky to be spared. Our hearts go out to our fellow Islanders of Vanuatu who were severely impacted by Cyclone Pam. Our prayers and thoughts are with them.
Until next time,
Ten juvenile scalloped hammerheads were caught over March and April in our local tagging in Korovou bay. Tagging will continue for another few months before we start the assessment of a new location looking for shark nurseries.
The tagging programme has climbed another step in the past few months. Each volunteer is now invited once a month by the University of the South Pacific (USP) to participate in their tagging programme in Suva. The project mainly targets scalloped hammerhead sharks, in order to define the quality of the river mouth as a nursery ground for this species, but tag every shark caught.
The volunteers are split up onto two boats and tag sharks in Rewa river mouth for about five hours. Two groups of volunteers have already been and had an incredible experience catching respectively 46 and 9 juvenile scalloped hammerheads. The sharks were tagged and released by the University and Projects Abroad staff members, while the volunteers assisted them. One of our Danish volunteers said:
“Tagging in Suva was one of the most exciting, amazing and fulfilling tasks I have ever done. Conservational science is often being practiced through analysing data and the political processes that follows. But in this case, we were actually doing something very real, where a live animal was depending on the work we were doing, which I found amazing and of course it was a lot of pressure at the same time, but pressure often makes us even more concentrated on the task we are doing.
The process was handled very professionally, and it was made clear that we were there to assist and that the actual handling of the shark was staff work, but if emergencies would occur, we should do whatever was asked of us.
Over all, tagging in Suva was an amazing experience handled very professionally, and it was a very real example of what field marine biology actually is. It has only enhanced my passion for the profession, and I cannot wait to pursue the same kind of fulfilment for the rest of my life.”
Also, our lead scientist Gauthier Mescam had the pleasure and honour to be invited by Mike Newman and Juerg Brunnschweiler to participate in tagging adult bull sharks on Shark Reef Marine Reserve. The first pop-up satellite tag has been set up thanks to a spear gun on Tip, one of our big females, which you can discover on our Facebook page: Shark Reef Marine Reserve. The tag is now attached to the back of Tip, close to her first dorsal fin. The post-settlement reaction and behaviour of Tip was carefully studied. She reacted very well and came back straight away after bursting for a few meters.
What a wonderful and successful experience for our team! The volunteers can now observe Tip and her tag roaming the arena during the shark dives. New satellite tags will be delivered during the first week on May and installed on different adult bull sharks, thanks to a spear gun. They should provide information about their travel around Fiji over the year. Stay tuned!
Clam Nursery Project
The famous Fijian dive centre Beqa Adventure Divers (BAD) and Projects Abroad have started a new Conservation project on Shark Reef Marine Reserve: A giant clam nursery!
The volunteers built cement slabs and cages that will receive and protect the juvenile clams until they reach a sufficient size to avoid predation. The BAD and Projects Abroad teams have worked together to install the slabs in a suitable place chosen as a nursery. The volunteers will then settle the juvenile clams onto the slabs over the beginning of May. Every two weeks, the volunteers will clean the clams and cage and measure their growth rate.
Giant clams are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) list and all species are categorised in Appendix II of CITES (United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). They play an important role in the coral reef ecosystem as filter feeders, but are heavily threatened in Fiji as they are greatly appreciated for their meat as food and for their shells as ornaments and souvenirs.
It’s been a busy two months with sightings of reef manta rays, eagle rays, zebra sharks and several turtles. The new programme for survey divers has been implemented with great success. The BRUV drop has been missed several times due to poor conditions and it is expected to remain this way until the end of July. However, juvenile tiger sharks, guitarfish, and many indicator species have been spotted on the BRUV’s over the past few months. The new mapping project has begun with the intention to successfully map every potential dive site in the medium and small reserve in Beqa Lagoon.
The survey dives have been consistent throughout the past two months, with a much larger emphasis on volunteer training and fish identification. Three zebra sharks have been spotted in the medium reserve and Yanuca reserve. A lucky dive group saw a giant reef manta ray at the beginning of April in the Yanuca reserve. Bull sharks and grey reefs are a regular sight on the survey dives conducted at Shark Reef Marine Reserve and Combre Reef. The second dive in the afternoon has been cancelled three times in the past two months due to unsafe diving conditions.
The combination of a more outlined training process on land and underwater has resulted in more trained volunteers in indicator fish identification. The survey test has been in place with a rotation of three tests given once a week. The volunteer’s data is not used until they graduate from the training group into the survey diver group by passing the final test with 80% or higher and completing all of the required diving and survey diver skills outlined in the Projects Abroad Survey Diver Distinctive Specialty course. At the beginning, approximately 30% of volunteers passed their test on their first try. As of the end of April, that number has increased to approximately 70% pass rate on the first attempt.
The weather conditions have been difficult especially in the month of April, limiting the number of BRUV drops we can do. On average, three BRUVs are successfully deployed every week and one cancellation due to diver and BRUV safety. The weather is expected to remain a challenge for BRUV drops over the next few months. The BRUV viewing has been very productive on land, with tiger sharks and guitar fish being observed. The data is backed up and is being reorganized by Gauthier at the end of April. The new outline for BRUV viewing will be in effect by May (designed and implemented by Gauthier Mescam).
The new mapping project has begun. It is a slow and ongoing project. Volunteers who are here for a while and are very competent at both diving and fish identification skills are being asked to map out the exploratory dive sites and draw them out during their land-based time. All the maps are being collected and a map book of all the sites we regularly visit will be made available in the future. Sometimes we are unable to conduct dives in the medium or small reserve due to weather conditions, which means sometimes no maps are drawn for a couple of weeks. However, we have now accumulated enough maps to make dive maps for three new sites: Anders Place, Sophie’s Point, and Leo’s Paradise (working dive site names). There are approximately 5 other dive sites waiting to be mapped when we visit them next. The goal is to have all survey dive locations in Yanuca, medium and small areas and make them available to dive centres and tourist stations in the area.
Over the last two months, much work has been completed with the Mangroves for Fiji project. The project has a few different aspects involved and this includes constructing nursery areas from bamboo and nylon mesh, recycling plastic bottles by cutting them in half and making holes in the underside, filling bottles with substrate, collecting propagules, planting propagules in pots, watering propagules, weeding pots, replacing dead propagules for live ones, and planting established propagules into the wild. The outcome of all this work has various benefits and by taking part in mangrove reforestation volunteers are indirectly responsible for:
- depositing significant quantities of detritus into the marine environment, which in turn, provides food for sea life
- providing a nesting, nursery and refuge ground for mammals, amphibians, reptiles, countless species of plants, juvenile fish including sharks, invertebrates, sponges, barnacles, oysters, mussels, crabs, shrimps and many avian species
- recharging underground water supplies
- trapping debris and silt, stabilising the near-shore environment, preventing shore erosion and clarifying adjacent open water which facilitates photosynthesis in marine plants
- buffering natural forces such as hurricanes, wave action, tidal change and run off
- sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and mitigating the effects of global warming
In March, Projects Abroad volunteers and staff constructed a new nursery in Vunibau village and planted 2700 propagules in pots recycled from plastic bottles. In April, established propagules were collected from the nursery areas in Uprising Beach Resort, Pacific Harbour Multicultural School and Ventura apartments and taken to Vunibau village to plant in the wild. 5000 propagules were successfully planted with the help of the locals on the Navua riverbank and these will be monitored over the coming months in order to obtain successful establishment rates. Other work completed during April includes the expansion of the Ventura nursery area, increasing potential capacity from 5000 propagules to 12,500 propagules, and 3000 new propagules were planted in the Ventura nursery.
The objective of this year is to increase the nursery capacity to 40,000 and also to construct a large nursery area at Uprising. Once this has been achieved, Projects Abroad aims to approach local businesses and estimate their carbon footprint. Using this information, emissions can be translated into the number of hectares of mangroves needed in order to offset their carbon emissions, and businesses will be able to become carbon neutral with the help of Projects Abroad.
Community days over the last two months have been very successful. Volunteers visited Vunibau village, Galoa village and Rampu Primary School. In Vunibau volunteers attended the kindergarten and performed a puppet show, introducing the children to the marine world and species encountered. The entire exercise was used as a tool for teaching the children the importance of conserving their marine environment and how sharks are not to be feared.
On a separate occasion, volunteers gave various presentations to the adult villagers and introduced and explained the work that Projects Abroad is conducting in Fiji with regards to mangroves restoration, shark tagging, community work and marine survey work. In Galoa village, volunteers again worked in the kindergarten performing the puppet show, whereas in Rampu Primary School, volunteers worked with older children teaching them about marine species, mangroves, recycling, ecology and conservation.
The Shark Conservation Project not only encompasses survey, restoration and community education but also gives something back to someone or somewhere in need. This can be through building, painting or even cleaning. Over the last two months, volunteers visited The Happy Home Trust in Suva City in March, which is a refuge for children in need, and then Culanuku village in April to help with the construction of the community hall. At Happy Homes, a bunk house for the children is currently being constructed and volunteers were involved in the sanding of the freshly plastered walls.
Although it was ‘dirty work’, everyone that took part left knowing that they had done a selfless act for somebody that would never have asked for help. In Culanuku, village volunteers assisted the villagers with a range of activities from cleaning windows, carrying sand from the beach for cement and painting the ceiling, beams and walls. After the day’s work, volunteers were rewarded with a traditional Fijian lunch and many bowls of the tradition drink; Kava. The villagers were tremendously grateful and all involved had a lot of fun!