With the support of the Waitt Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been engaging stakeholders and the wider public to explore opportunities to establish offshore marine managed areas in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape (the sea passage between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu).

The Vatu-i-Ra Seascape is home to wildlife including turtles, cetaceans, iguanas, birds, and fish species, some of which are endangered or threatened by the impacts of changing climate and human activities. Coastal communities within the four provinces, the tourism sector, the fishing industry and the transport sector rely on the seascape for their livelihoods and businesses. Communities within the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape have strong social, cultural and historical values and ties with the seascape. For instance, Moon Reef was an old village site to the people of Nataleira in Dawasamu.

To protect the biodiversity, economic, cultural, social, and economic importance of the seascape from the growing threats and pressures from human activities, requires new innovative management measures. One option that is currently being discussed is the establishment of multiple use offshore marine managed areas in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. The proposed marine managed areas will be identified through wide stakeholders’ consultations before a proposal is submitted to the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests for Government’s endorsement. The concept may be new to Fiji, however, the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef marine protected area system provides an example that can be adapted and modified to suit the Fijian context. The Great Barrier Reef uses a zoning system to manage different sections of the reef, to maintain its biological, social and economic values. Different zones have different activities that are allowed or not allowed.

These offshore marine managed areas would make significant contribution to the commitment the Fijian Government made at the Small Island Developing States conference in Mauritius in 2005 and again in Samoa in 2014, to protect 30% of Fiji’s seas by 2020.

Some of the highlights for 2015 so far, include a one and a half day workshop for stakeholders on “Spatial planning in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape”, a photo and art exhibition at the Fiji Museum opened by the President of Fiji, and the drafting of a terms of reference for the formation of the Offshore Marine Protected Areas Committee under the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests. In addition, a consultancy was completed on offshore fisheries operating in the Vatu-i-Ra seascape, and a new work will commence shortly to look at sustainable financing options for marine protected area networks in Fiji (including inshore locally managed marine areas, and offshore marine managed areas).

The continued support provided by the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests and the relevant stakeholders from the four provinces of Bua, Tailevu, Ra and Tailevu are creating new dialogue on the management of Fiji’s valuable offshore (deeper water) marine resources.

Words by Ruci Lumelume