By: Yashika Nand

Category 5 tropical cyclone Winston has undoubtedly changed the land and seascape when it passed between the two islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu on 20 February 2016. Two months later the country is starting the rebuilding process, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is helping to assess the impact of the cyclone on our coral reef systems and the fisheries we are so dependent on.

For a decade, WCS has worked closely with the communities of Ra, Bua and Lomaiviti Provinces. Over the years we have done several marine resource surveys that give us a strong baseline of what the reefs were like prior to cyclone Winston.

In the last six days, we have seen unprecedented changes to nearshore and further offshore coral reefs in Ra Province. Inshore, we recorded 70-80% of reefs with clear signs of impact from land-based sediment which are smothering and choking corals. Large numbers of overturned corals and rubble were observed, and with it a significant reduction in habitat for fish and invertebrates. And the fish stocks already look low compared to our 2014 surveys.

In contrast, the Vatu-i-Ra reef system further offshore showed some really interesting patterns. Reef systems on the northern side of Vatu-i-Ra Island had minimal damage with intact structure and very few overturned corals. This was largely because of the pinnacle reefs in the area, which are popular with the dive industry. Reefs on south western side of the island were severely impacted losing 70-80% reef structure. In addition, rubble and fragmented corals from shallow waters (3-5m) were pushed into deeper waters (8-15m) that buried and killed large areas of corals. Branching corals that form intricate structures that house colourful damselfish and anthias are now very rare to see. Reef stabilising massive corals such as Porites and Diploastrea corals were overturned and 80-90% were dead. Most massive corals grow very slow at rate of 0.5-1cm a year have been wiped out in a single cyclone event.

Despite extensive damage to reef structure and decline in fisheries resources, and my worry for the future of Fiji’s reefs, I remind myself that if our reefs have recovered from bleaching events in 2000, 2002 and 2008, and past cyclones and I hope they continue to be as resilient, post-Winston. However, the impact of TC Winston is severe enough that is may take least 2-3 decades for reefs in the impact zone to fully recover. Because reef systems in Vatu-i-Ra are connected and there is strong currents around the area, there is high chance that northern less impacted) reefs may reseed damaged reefs, if the reef structure is able to stabilize and herbivorous fish are allowed to feed on algae to create clean surface for baby corals to settle on. These processes will occur naturally but only if we as Fijians do our part. There is no way to sugar coat this. To avoid further damage and fast recovery, we need to reduce fishing pressure on damaged reef systems. If we can do that, our reefs stand a good chance of showing us they really can be “Stronger than Winston”.