By Sangeeta Mangubhai

Stretching over 19,400 km2 across the channel that links Fiji’s two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu is the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. A seascape is what scientists and conservationists call a marine area that has high biological diversity, is bio geographically intact and is ecologically and genetically connected.

The Vatu-i-Ra Seascape is one of Fiji’s hidden underwater jewels, boasting an intricate network of vibrant coral reefs, with colourful soft corals, sea fans and masses of colourful reef fish. Each year majestic Oceanic humpback whales migrate north from Antarctica to bear calves in Fiji’s warm tropical waters and sea turtles (known locally as vonu) feed and lay eggs on our beaches. Multiple shark and ray species are found in the seascape, including a grey reef shark breeding ground, a migratory route for scalloped hammerhead sharks travelling between pupping and aggregation grounds, several manta ray cleaning stations and a manta ray courting passage. Black noddies, masked-boobies, terns and frigate birds roost in masses on uninhabited islands, and resident spinner dolphins at Moon Reef off Viti Levu can be seen chasing fish, squid and shrimp into deep water.

Why is this area so diverse? Local scientists believe the seascape is nourished by the deep Vatu-i-Ra and Lomaiviti Passages, and currents generated from squeezing the sea through narrow channels helps to bring up cooler nutrient-rich waters from the seafloor and distributes fish eggs and juvenile fish to other parts of Fiji. These same nutrients are critical to inshore and offshore fisheries which Fiji is reliant on for food and livelihoods. A wide range of coral reefs including seamounts and pinnacles draw divers from all from all over the world to experience the spectacular underwater colours and sights of the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Annual value of tourism and fisheries in the seascape together is estimated at just over US$35 million.

Fijian culture, economy and Fiji’s people’s well-being are highly reliant and centred on the habitats, species and the ecosystem services the seascape provides. However, the natural resources on which so many people depend are under threat. Poor land-based 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.

Despite these threats and challenges, there is hope, optimism and momentum towards protecting wilderness jewels like the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. A growing understanding of the importance of taking a holistic ecosystem-based management approach is resulting in strong, unprecedented partnerships between national government, provincial offices, communities, private sector, non-government organisations and research institutions. Since 2013, with funding support from the Waitt Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Fiji Government and partners have been working together to identify and establish marine managed areas in the deeper archipelagic waters in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. Marine Managed Areas (MMAs) 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), promoting particular activities in certain areas, conserving fragile, representative or special parts of the marine environment, and limiting certain uses in some areas.

So where are we at? In consultation with the fisheries, transport, tourism and mining sectors, two large MMAs have been identified for the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape, which includes “no take areas” where all forms of fishing and extraction will be strictly prohibited. These no take areas will help protect the areas rich biodiversity, and serve as “fish banks” for adjacent areas.

The goal of the MMAs in the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape is to contribute to a comprehensive, ecologically representative network of marine protected areas for Fiji that restores and sustains the health, productivity, resilience, and biological diversity of coastal and marine systems, and promote the quality of life for our communi­ties who depend on them. These MMAs will help protect and manage the unique biodiversity, fisheries and other ecosystem services the seascape provides.

The proposed Bligh Waters MMA and Central Viti MMA will be the first for Fiji’s archipelagic waters and will contribute an additional 1.2% to Fiji’s international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity, and Fiji’s own target to protect 30 percent of its seas by 2020.

This commitment could not come at a better time, as the Fijian Government prepares to co-host the United Nations Ocean Conference with the Government of Sweden, on 5‒9 June, 2017 in New York. The conference will focus around the Sustainable Development Goal 14 which is to Conserve and Sustainably Use the Oceans, Seas and Marine Resources for Sustainable Development.

This article also appeared in the Mai Life in-flight magazine.