Diving in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape © Sangeeta Mangubhai

Diving in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape © Sangeeta Mangubhai

The Vatu-i-Ra Seascape is one of the most biodiverse and productive areas in Fiji that supports local community livelihoods and the larger Fijian economy. Much of the tourism and fisheries in the seascape is dependent on healthy coral reefs and productive ocean in the seascape.

It is however, challenging to get people to truly appreciate the value of our natural ecosystems, and the services they provide us, as people. How many of you look at the ocean and think about the role it plays in regulating our local climate? Or think about the fact that if we did not have spectacular colourful healthy reefs, that the tourists (that contribute to our economy) might stop coming? Or if our oceans are damaged, we might not have enough fish to eat and we would lose our main source of protein.

Unfortunately many of the decisions we make about our ocean are not based on a full understanding of the important ecosystem services the ocean provides us. This is why conservationists are starting to use ‘resource economics’ to engage and have conversations with policy and decision makers. Resource economists help us put a dollar value on our natural resources, so that we understand there are economic gains or losses to decisions we make about our natural resources. Sometimes you will hear resource economists refer to nature as “natural capital” – many of us believe that our national accounting system needs to be changed to not only take into account human capital, infrastructure capital, but also our natural capital.

Earlier this year, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) engaged Stuart Gow, a tourism expert based in Fiji, and Brian Kastl an ecosystem service expert based in Hawaii, to assist in an economic valuation of key ecosystem services, focusing on fisheries production and tourism, to estimate the value of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Tourism data were gathered from hotel and dive operators operating in the Seascape, and fisheries data were gathered from government staff, local fisheries experts, and from WCS.

Interviews with the tourism sector revealed that all tourist operators in the Vatu-i-Ra seascape are heavily reliant on the aesthetics and biodiversity of marine species, especially for dive tourism. In addition to employing at least 767 workers/year and hosting 35,700 guests/year, the gross revenue generated from tourism in the seascape was estimated at FJ $47,240,700/year. The study also found that fishing in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape is now at unsustainable rates. We are currently taking out 5500 tonnes/year, which is valued at FJ $24,097,900/year. A more sustainable rate of harvest should be around 3470 tonnes/year.

Adding these figures together, we can estimate that the value of tourism and fisheries in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape is around FJD $71,821,300/year. The big question is that if this area is worth that much, shouldn’t we do more to better protect or manage this area? The Vatu-i-Ra Seascape is more than just a body of water that separates Viti Levu from Vanua Levu. The seascape is a biodiverse and highly productive part of our ocean, that we are highly dependent on.