Our first two survey days have been spent in Natuvu village in Wailevu West, in Cakaudrove Province. We chose this village because we had heard the local communities have been actively managing their sea cucumber resources through tabu areas (temporal closures) for many years now. With some initial support from the Department of Fisheries and James Cook University in 2009, the communities received sea pens and brood stock of the sea cucumber Holothuria scabra (known locally as dairo and by traders as sandfish), to help revive their depleted stock.

These sea pens were kept in a protected area and fiercely protected by village fish wardens. Community members monitored the growth and mortality of their brood stock until they were big enough to put out into the wild where they could feed and reproduce unrestricted. We were here to listen and learn more!
We got up at 5:30am and headed out as the sun started rising to survey Natuvu village’s fishing grounds. We specifically designed our surveys so that we sampled both inside and outside the large tabu area that ran from the beach to the outer reef, and will remain closed for three years. There were two questions we wanted to answer. Firstly, we wanted to know if the tabu areas were working and were protecting this core sea cucumber stock. Secondly, we wanted to know if there was natural spill over of sea cucumbers from closed areas into fished areas.

The team jumped into the water with much anticipation and were delighted to see dairo throughout the tabu area, as well as a number of other species which have become depleted throughout Fiji. Most of the animals were out feeding reminding me of how important these animals are in our ecosystems as they sift through sediment, keeping it healthy and well aerated, consuming algae so that it does not grow out of control. However, we noticed that the abundance of sea cucumbers were highest closest to the village and the further out you go, the more depleted the tabu area was.

This made sense when we talked to the chief and other members of the community in the evening. Poachers have also heard about the success of Natuvu and come into the area to steal sea cucumbers with little regard and respect for the efforts of these communities to manage their fishery sustainably. I saw lights out at sea when I woke briefly in the middle of the night, after everyone had gone to sleep – I had that awful sinking feeling that the poachers were back.

Luckily this has not deterred the villagers at Natuvu, who love sharing their success story with us. And we are not the only ones listening. The two villages either side of Natuvu have been listening and learning, and have now their own tabu areas in place to protect and rehabilitate their sea cucumber populations. It just re-emphasizes a lesson I learned very early on in my career – the best way for communities to learn good management, is by sharing their own successes with each other.

By Sangeeta Mangubhai