By: Sangeeta Mangubhai

The 2016 Category 5 Cyclone Winston left a wake of devastation in its path. Koro Island in the Lomaiviti Group was one of the worst hit with extensive damage to homes, schools and other infrastructure, as well as to community agriculture and fisheries. A 2016 study by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Fiji Locally Managed Marine Areas (FLMMA) network, University of the South Pacific, Coral Reef Alliance and Global Vision International estimated damages and losses of boats and engines on Koro Island at FJ$64,035. There were also significant losses in fishing gear across the province which impacted communities’ ability to fish for food in the months after.

Prior to the cyclone WCS had been working with the communities of Koro and the Lomaiviti Provincial Office to design an island-scale ridge-to-reef management plan. Over the next 2 weeks WCS will be visiting each of the 14 communities on Koro Island to re-engage with the communities and see if they would like to move forward with the management plan. Given the recent impact of the cyclone, any management plan developed will need to incorporate strategies address disaster risk reduction and to build community resilience to future disturbances from climate change and natural disasters.

Concurrently, a group of scientists from WCS will be conducting a rapid assessment of the coral reefs, both inside and outside community tabu (periodically harvested closures) areas to quantify the scale of the impact from Cyclone Winston, and to look for signs of recovery. Koro has an extensive (and impressive) network of tabu areas all around the island to maintain healthy fish stocks. The data gathered will be analysed and shared back to local communities and incorporated in the ridge-to-reef planning process.

On land, the communities have yet to identify forest protected areas. To complement the marine work a team of scientists from local NGO NatureFiji-MareqetiViti and United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Ministry of Forests will be doing surveys of ‘herpetofauna’ (like frogs, skinks, iguanas, snakes) and will document any invasive species (e.g. mongoose) they find on land. At the same time, Partners in Community Development Fiji (PCDF) will be conducting village profiles to assist communities produce village development plans that are in line with guidelines from the iTaukei Affairs Board.

As the team prepares all the logistics for the trip, we heard the news that the Uto-ni-Yalo, a Fijian canoe (or ‘vaka’) has just arrived in Koro to create awareness about two proposed large marine managed areas in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. The two marine managed areas will contribute to protecting this highly biodiverse seascape for both nature and for people.

Technology permitting, we hope to be able to get live blogs and updates from the field.