By Ruci Lumelume & Sangeeta Mangubhai

The Vatu-i-Ra Seascape is a 28,894 km2 area stretching across the channel that links Fiji’s two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. The area provides the main transportation routes between the two islands for domestic and international vessels, features some of the world’s best dive sites for the tourism sector (with an annual tourism revenue of FJD 47 million), and provides habitat for migratory whales, dolphins, seabirds and turtles, provides food and livelihoods to the 116,000 people that live in the seascape.

The seascape also features areas of cultural and economic importance to the people as they are highly reliant and centred on the habitats, species and the ecosystem services the seascape provides.

However, the critical resources that many of these communities depend on are under threat.

Poor land-use practices and increased demands for cash income and materials goods, coupled with growing populations and access to markets have led to substantial increased pressure on those resources. Uncontrolled extraction, poor compliance and enforcement of national laws means marine resources are, or close to being fully-exploited.

Climate change is of growing concern as predicted sea level rise, warming seas, and extreme climate events are likely to exceed the coping capacity of natural ecosystems and the local communities they support. In February 2016, Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Winston, the largest recorded in the southern hemisphere, cut a pathway through the seascape causing unprecedented damage and losses both to people’s homes as well as mangrove and coral reefs.

One way to effectively address the threats and ensure sustainable use is through Marine Managed Areas (MMAs), which are special places in coastal and marine eco­systems where vital natural and cultural areas are given much greater protection than the surrounding waters. Although there are already many inshore community-managed MMAs, deeper water MMAs are needed to maintain the connectivity between inshore and offshore environments.

This connectivity is essential for marine species which often live different parts of their life cycle in different habitats, and for oceanic species such as tuna, turtles, whales and dolphins which migrate through the area.

MMAs, if well designed, can also reduce threats by separat­ing conflicting uses, protecting important fishing areas (e.g., spawning aggregation sites), and promoting particular activities in certain areas, conserving fragile, representative or special parts of the marine environment, and limiting certain uses in some areas.

WCS in consultation with the fisheries, transport, tourism and mining sectors, has helped identified two large MMAs within the seascape – the proposed Bligh Waters and Central Viti MMA’s, include areas of high biodiversity and productivity, and will hopefully be included in “no take areas” areas where all forms of fishing and extraction will be strictly prohibited.

The expectation is that these no-take areas will help protect the area’s rich biodiversity, and serve as “fish banks” for adjacent areas like the Great Sea Reef and Lau Seascape.