When coral ecologist Victor Bonito dove into the warm waters just off Fiji’s Coral Coast on a Thursday morning in early February, he noticed some bleaching on a previously healthy patch of reef, but didn’t think much of it. The next day, however, he started getting phone calls from several residents of the villages dotting the coast. Dead fish were washing ashore. By Monday, Bonito’s phone was ringing like crazy. He went down to a beach near his office in the village of Votua. The sand was lost beneath a blanket of fish – some dead, some still gasping. “I couldn’t get into scientist mode,” Bonito said, “because everyone was calling, asking if it was okay to eat the fish.”
Over the following days, Bonito and a group of young Votua villagers – who Bonito is teaching to identify, cultivate, and protect the corals in a no-take marine protected area (MPA) – did some dives to assess the extent of the bleaching and die-off. “We had never seen anything like it,” Bonito said. He downloaded the latest temperature readings from a digital thermometer he keeps on the reef. In the days leading up to the die-off, temperatures had not dipped below 80 degrees Fahrenheit, a threshold beyond which the health of the Coral Coast’s nearshore marine ecosystem would be threatened. But on the day of the die-off, the water temperature reached nearly100 degrees.
El Niño was the culprit. At that moment, sea surface temperatures throughout the tropical Pacific were breaking records. February’s Coral Coast bleaching was just a small part of a global pattern that had begun in October 2015. The event, which is still going on, has now become the longest bleaching event since scientists first started monitoring the phenomenon in 1998, when an El Niño-driven marine heatwave killed 16 percent of the world’s corals. Researchers are still assessing the extent of this bleaching – and scientists from NOAA have warned that the crisis may actually continue into 2017.
Fiji’s coral reef ecosystem is the most extensive in the South Pacific, and the Coral Coast’s fringing reef is one of the largest among those, spanning along some 70 kilometers of the southwestern coast of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu. Some five hundred million people worldwide depend on coral reefs for sustenance and income, and the residents of Fiji’s coastal villages make up a small fraction of this population.
Bonito has lived in Votua since 2005, operating Reef Explorer Fiji, a community-based research and development business that supports local resource conservation. The idea is to challenge what might be called “Big Research,” by practicing what might be called “Little Research” – that is, equipping communities with the knowledge and tools to nurture and protect the natural resources, like coral reefs, that they rely on, rather than handing over the keys to outside experts, organizations, or institutions.
Born in North Carolina, Bonito fell in love with coral reefs as a boy, when he first visited Oahu, Hawaiʻi on a family vacation. After a stint in Fiji as a Peace Corps volunteer, he finished a Master’s of Science in biology at the University of Guam.
“I went back to school because I was interested in how to bridge the gap between management and science,” Bonito told me one afternoon in his office, a former dive shop with pastel blue- and yellow-painted walls and big windows that gulped the trade winds lumbering in off the South Pacific. “I wanted to be based in a community, rather than be someone who periodically showed up to work, because I thought you’d understand the community better, and how things should be best implemented.” As we talked, several villagers popped in the office to say hello and make small talk.
In a country like Fiji, where for centuries individual native (iTaukei) villages retain the fishing rights to reefs adjacent to their communities, it isn’t easy to introduce broad conservation plans, especially if they come from university researchers, NGOs, or government committees from out of town or overseas. Chiefs, elders, and community members in general must be consulted and constantly kept abreast of progress and plans. And few things are more contentious than conservation proposals that might disrupt fishing, which is not just a key food source for villages, but also a cherished cultural pastime.
But, beginning in the late 1990s, villages throughout Fiji started looking for help. Traditional fishing practices – like breaking apart coral with metal rods to flush out fish, or poisoning, or dynamiting – had caused extensive damage to the reefs. Up to that point, the Coral Coast’s reef ecosystem had managed to cope with the trauma, but as climate change-related forces – like increasing sea surface temperatures – began to kick in, the reefs started to collapse. In 2000, following record high surface temperatures, the Coral Coast experienced its first large-scale bleaching event as well as an unprecedented fish die-off.
Photo by Kini Ravanoloa
“The reef was a desert,” Akuila Kurimata, a 69-year-old clan head in the Coral Coast village of Votualailai, told me. In the past, Kurimata explained, you could put your cassava on the fire, then go get your fish. After the 2000 bleaching and die-off, however, it took so long to find any decent fish that the cassava would burn. Then, as the reef was beginning a slow recovery, a coup d'état occurred, which drastically reduced tourism, Fiji’s second-biggest economic driver. The resulting lack of resources put even more stress on the coral reefs, as villagers leaned even harder on them for food and income.
Emosi Buruavatu, who is the traditional chief of the landowning tribes in the district of Korolevu-i-wai, which includes Votua and Votualailai, as well as other village heads like Kurimata, reached out to the University of the South Pacific’s Institute of Applied Science based in Fiji’s capital, Suva, for help. They wanted to develop a marine resource management plan. In 2002, Korolevu-i-wai began working with the community-based marine conservation organization, Locally-Managed Marine Area Network, or LMMA, which made the Coral Coast a pilot area, setting up some of the South Pacific’s first marine protected areas or MPAs.
Today, there are more than 217 locally managed marine areas in Fiji, covering over 6,000 square miles of traditional fishing grounds. The hope is that by 2020, 20 percent of Fiji’s nearshore reefs will be protected, rehabilitated, and preserved by the villages themselves.
In addition to Votua and Votualailai, Bonito works with two other Coral Coast villages on the management of their MPAs. The results have been stunning, especially in Votualailai. The pale, algae-covered coral “desert” that Kurimata described to me has been replaced by a color wheel of soft and hard corals that are crowded with surgeon, rabbit, parrot, emperor, and goat fish, grouper, snapper, and barracuda. “The sites were chosen with very little biological criteria and more social criteria, as well as what people would respect,” Bonito said.
One morning, I joined Bonito and five young men from Votua for a dive in the village’s MPA, where they are raising about 2,000 corals. We made our way out on paddleboards and in kayaks to the section of reef where Bonito has set up a nursery. Wobbling beneath the crystal clear surface was the outline of a metal rack strung with ropes upon which clusters of coral grafts were growing. Within a couple of weeks, the grafts would be ready to be moved from the ropes to dead patches of reef, where they would be transplanted.
A recent large swell had knocked over some of the nursery’s racks, and Bonito and his crew spent the morning resetting them. After the nursery was tidied up, Bonito and I sat on one of the paddleboards as the silhouettes of his diving team drifted beneath us, silently working.
Looking back toward shore, the cinderblock and corrugated tin homes of Votua peeked through the stands of coconut palms and mangroves lining the beach. Some net fishermen worked in the distance, just outside the MPA. The remnants of a large wave set breaking on the reef’s distant shelf rippled beneath us, causing the colors of the healthy coral below to pop and flash like little fireworks. Though Votua’s nursery is helping heal just a tiny patch in planet-sized pandemic, Bonito was optimistic about their work.
“To turn science into policy is a painstaking process,” he said. “But local policy can happen fast.”