On Saturday, 20 February 2016, Fiji was hit by one of the largest cyclones we had experienced, with winds of up to 185mph and gusts of 225 mph. Over a 24-hour period the cyclone Winston left a trail of destruction through the centre of our country and through the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape, where the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) works with over 120 local communities.

In March, we had the opportunity to do a rapid assessment of coral reefs throughout the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape in partnership with Nai’a Cruises. The focus of the surveys was on sites important to the dive tourism industry. The data collected was critical in the post-disaster needs assessment led by the Government of Fiji last month. A report was produced on the coral reef surveys, and is now available on line at http://www.wcsfiji.org/Resources/Reports.aspx

However, very little work has been done to look at the impact within community traditional fishing grounds, including tabu areas (periodically harvested closures). As communities rebuild their lives, they will want to return to the sea and fish for food and/or livelihoods. But there are a lot of unanswered questions like how much damage has been done to community’s reefs including their fisheries? Did the cyclone affect the fish stocks within tabu areas? How much fishing pressure can damaged reefs sustain, and what are the implications for local communities in the short to medium term? More than ever communities need information on their natural resources to make decisions about their path to recovery, both on land and in the sea.

Through the generous support of Wananavu Resort and with the blessing of local communities and the Provincial Office, we are in Ra for a week to dive and assess the damage to corals and changes to fish populations within fishing grounds of Nakorotubu District. We have specifically selected sites that we surveyed in 2014, so that we can quantify the changes to the coral reefs. We will also be surveying sites within and outside tabu areas, as well as the Vatu-i-Ra Conservation Park, which is being established by local communities in partnership with the tourism operators, like Wananavu Resort, Volivoli and Nai’a Cruises.

So what are we doing under the water? Yashika Nand our coral expert and I will collect data on coral cover, diversity, and coral community composition. Waisea Naisilisili and Watisoni Lalavanua will be recording the species, sizes and abundances of coral reef fish that are important to local communities. Dive master Mindy Huston and Anna Hoig are taking photographs to document both healthy and impacted reefs.

We will be live blogging from the field, sharing results when we can, and feel free to email us questions if you have any.