LATEST NEWS - Frontier Fiji

FIJI MARINE PROJECT MOVES TO NEW LOCATION

After a successful period working on Gau island alongside Dr Joeli Veitayaki (JV) of the University of the South Pacific and the International Ocean Institute since 2006, Frontier Fiji has now moved locations to Beqa Island in order to assess the status of the coral reef systems around Beqa and within Beqa Lagoon. The project plans to work in collaboration with the local communities of Beqa to establish seasonal no take zones and sustainable harvest rates for both their commercial sale and artisanal utilisation.

The reefs that surround Fiji are generally on the whole in good health as there are no heavy industry or agriculture pressures on the reefs. However the bleaching event which took place in 2002 majorly affected the reefs therefore studies have shown that the reefs around Beqa have a slow recovery rate and there is concern that increased natural events will contribute towards the decline of healthy reefs.

Where the project is located, in Beqa, it is known as the soft coral capital of the world with divers coming from all over the world to dive in its pristine blue waters. There are over 50 dive sites which make the main source of income on the islands supplied by dive tourism and as this becomes more popular the reef subsequently face more pressure from tourism. There is a tradition in the local villages on the island which sees the chief of each village lay down claim to a reef and consequently lay down a “taboo” which sees the resources protected. Studies on this management method have shown them to be effective in managing and protecting the resources of the reef.

As of yet the project is quite new therefore initial studies have included three sites which all have different environments and comparing the biodiversity of each site. Researchers also lay out permanent transects and mooring lines which provide a backdrop to a fully functioning research project. Results from the first phase show that the level of biodiversity is quite high however the reefs are still recovering from the 2002 bleaching event therefore more intense surveying is required.

The aims of this project include future surveying on the benthic forms, fish species biodiversity, abundance and sizes, invertebrate species and coral genus which should give an indication of whether the reefs need additional protection in the form of marine protected areas. As Frontier’s projects have developed over the years it has become clear that local communities need to be educated on the importance of their natural resources being protected. Therefore, workshops are being set up for future phases to work with the local fisherman and children to educate them on marine conservation.

By Kelly Gimson

Learn more about the Fiji Marine Conservation & Diving project.


MARINE SURVEYS: NO TAKE ZONES HAVE HIGHER DIVERSITY AND ABUNDANCE

Frontier’s Fiji Marine Research team have been busy continuing the marine baseline surveys, collecting data with respect to the diversity and abundance of fish, benthic forms, algae and invertebrates. This phase, interestingly, the research team have found that sites in the Qarani tabu area have higher levels of fish abundance and diversity.

The Fiji research team is based at Muana on the northwest coast of Gau. To the south of Muana, the island is characterised by low lying coastal areas, a nearshore fringing reef, extensive lagoon and a barrier reef running approximately two thirds of the length of the island from the southern tip. To the north, the barrier reef continues and then the seafloor rapidly drops to around 1000m in the Koro sea. The team have been investigating health and status of the coral reefs of Gau Island at selected sites, with the long-term aim of the promotion and establishment of sustainable resource exploitation by the communities on Gau Island. The main threats to coral reefs in the region are anthropogenic activity, cyclones and coral bleaching.

The research team found that the abundance and diversity of fish and invertebrates (including holothurians aka. Sea cucumbers) differed across the sites surveyed. Sites within the Qarani tabu area (no take zones) had higher levels of abundance and diversity and fish and invertebrates, and in the case of fish were also larger. Whereas, sites to the north of the Qarani Village, had lower diversity and abundance, this is probably due to the northern sites being important fishing areas for both the Qarani and Vione villages. It would seem that the management measures introduced by Qarani, specifically the implementation of a tabu area, have met with a reasonable level of success, as the reef in the tabu areas supports not only a higher number of fish but also higher levels of hard coral cover.

It is widely acknowledged that the removal of predatory fish through overfishing has the potential to modify reef ecosystem structure and function. In addition it is often the larger fish species that are more vulnerable to exploitation and more highly sought after by fisheries. High levels of fishing pressure can result indirectly in an increase in the relative number of fish in the smaller size classes through reduced predation and competition from larger individuals. The results from this phase are therefore positive that no take zones, such as the Qarani tabu sites have higher levels of larger fish and invertebrates.

By Marielle James

Frontier runs a great number of adventure travel, gap year and wildlife conservation volunteering projects.


SWIMMING WITH MANTA RAYS IN FIJI

Last week a few Frontier Fiji staff and volunteers had the opportunity to dive with Manta rays in the Nigali passage, Gau Island, Fiji. Both the reef manta ray (Manta alfredi) and the giant manta ray (Manta birostris) species are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN (International Union for the conservation of Nature) redlist.

The genus Manta was separated into two different species in 2009. Both species have world-wide distribution, despite being listed as vulnerable. The major threat to Manta species is fishing, both targeted and incidental. Because of their large size, slow speed, aggregative behaviour and predictable habitat use and lack of human avoidance rays are an easy target.

In the future, Frontier Fiji hopes to work in conjunction with ECOCEAN and their MantaMatcher database. Divers upload their photographs of mantra rays onto the global database specifically designed to manage manta ray sightings and identifications across their distribution. Individual rays can be distinguished by markings on the underside of their bodies, similar to humans being identified by fingerprints. This data on individual rays can be used to determine abundance, trends, movements and structure of manta ray populations at individual aggregation sites across the globe. Frontier Fiji are currently seeking funding for more advanced underwater photographic equipment to enable our divers to upload images to the MantaMatcher database, as well as hopefully developing our own photographic marine projects.

By Julia Crabbe

Frontier runs a great number of adventure travel, gap year and wildlife conservation volunteering projects.


BUTTERFLYFISH

The butterflyfish are a group of conspicuous tropical marine fish of the family Chaetodontidae. These beautiful fish are much admired by divers, eco-tourists and scientists alike; however, for some species of butterflyfish, their strong dependency on certain species of coral has put them increasingly under threat as coral reef loss becomes an ever more urgent problem.

Butterflyfish are found mostly on the reefs of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans and there are approximately 120 species in 10 genera. Throughout the Info-Pacific, butterflyfish are an important component of reef monitoring programmes at national, regional and international levels. Due to their ease of identification, relative ease of censuring, broad geographic range, longevity (in some species as high as 14 years) and high degree of site attachment, the butterflyfish is an extremely apt research subject. At Frontiers Marine Research Project in Fiji, the butterflyfish is one of the top most recorded fish species at the three different reef sites currently under observation.

Studies show that butterflyfish assemblages may in fact be a good proxy of richness of an entire reef fish assemblage. On Gau Island, where Frontiers Fiji Marine Research Project is based, populations of butterflyfish correlate well with reef health indications such as general fish abundance and richness and hard coral cover. Despite high amounts of butterflyfish recordings, populations seem to be starkly following decreases in live coral availability. This decline occurred following an outbreak of crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci), which preys on corals by extruding its stomach onto the coral and releasing digestive enzymes that allow the starfish to absorb nutrients from the liquefied coral tissue.

The coral A. hyacinthus is one of the only food sources of the Chevron Butterflyfish (Chaetodon trifascialis) and it is highly vulnerable to crown-of-thorns starfish attacks. Once this species of coral disappears from a reef, the butterflyfish are not far behind. Outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish are thought to be triggered by humans releasing excess nutrients onto reefs as sediment, fertilizer or sewage or by removal of predators by subsistence fishery (as is the most likely case on Gau Island). As abundance and diversity of butterflyfish correlate well with hard coral cover, butterflyfish consequently appear to be a key indicator for reef health and resilience.

Frontiers Marine Research Project is closely monitoring butterflyfish and crown-of-thorns starfish populations on Gau Island in Fiji. Frontier also runs marine conservation projects in Madagascar and Tanzania.

By Lea Fraenkl

Frontier runs a great number of adventure travel, gap year and wildlife conservation volunteering projects.


OVERFISHING OF SEA CUCUMBERS IN FIJI

Many sea cucumbers (holothurians) are harvested and dried for export for use in Chinese cuisine as Hoi sam and bêche-de-mer, and holothurians are actively fished on Gau Island, Fiji, where the fishery is a significant source of income for local communities. However, local evidence suggests that fishery is currently operating at an unsustainable level as general observations of species appear to be characterised by those of a minimal commercial value, thus showing that the fishery is not economically viable. This raises concern, as the last three decades have seen largely uncontrolled development and expansion of the industry. Previously, a significant increase in production from tropical holothurian fisheries was observed in order to meet growing demand from China. Furthermore, it is recognised that this fishery represents a significant source of income for the local communities on Gau, concern has been expressed by local communities to the marine project team with respect to the long term sustainability of the venture.

Holothurians play an important role in coral reef ecosystems, acting as major benthic recyclers of nutrients and organic matter. Feeding on the upper few millimetres of sediment, the main ecological role of deposit feeding holothurians on the coral reef is assumed to be bioturbation of the sediment, resulting in destabilisation of the stratification, increased aeration, and the release into the water column of organic matter previously dissolved in interstitial water. Coral reef ecosystems are often characterised by a significant pool of nitrogen and phosphorous within the sediments, thus the role played by benthic grazers such as holothurians in recycling these nutrients can be assumed to be important in maintaining a high level of productivity in the environment.

Frontier’s current baseline survey methodology currently overlooks holothurians. In order to investigate the actual state of holothurians in the area of Gau, a specific holothurian survey is to be initiated, which will enable a far more representative set of baseline population data to be collected. From this, it should be possible to make a sufficiently accurate assessment of the population dynamics on Gau. The collation of accurate and comprehensive data regarding holothurian population parameters, to include species, numbers and sizes, and the distribution of those populations will provide important information ascertaining the status of holothurian populations, their susceptibility to overfishing, reproductive potential (and therefore the capacity to recover from exploitation), suitable fishing zones, and the opportunities for management measures to be initiated.

By Will Matthews

Frontier runs a number of wildlife conservation volunteering projects, and offers a huge variety of other opportunities to volunteer abroad.


PROJECT PROPOSED FOR RECOMMENDATION OF MARINE RESERVE

The planning of a new project with the aim of establishing the foundation for the classification of Nigali Passage as a marine reserve or marine protected area has been initiated on Frontier’s project in Fiji. The protection of this area will hopefully encourage the conservation of the locally significant population of grey reef shark Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos that is found at the site. Through discussion with local dive operators and members of the local community, it is suspected that the population may have suffered a degree of decline over recent years, which may affect the status of C. amblyrhynchos, which are currently classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List.

Grey reef sharks were the first shark species known to perform a threat display, a warning that it is prepared to attack, which involves a "hunched" posture with typically dropped pectoral fins, and an exaggerated, side-to-side swimming motion. Grey reef sharks often do so if they are followed or cornered by divers to indicate they perceive a threat. They are caught in many fisheries and are susceptible to local population depletion due to their low reproduction rate and limited dispersal, traits which have unfortunately led to their current near threatened classification status.

Tourism associated with sharks generates millions of dollars annually for both local and regional economies. However, despite the fact that large fish such as sharks are among the most valuable groups of fish, their life histories make them vulnerable and the worldwide depletion of apex predators continues through fisheries overexploitation. Despite the fact that sharks are recognised as being important regulators in maintaining healthy coral reef ecosystems, a difference in population size of up to 97% of C. amblyrhynchos between no-entry reefs and open reefs with fishing access.

The initial plan for the Nigali Passage project will involve the development of a photographic database of the sharks seen on dives at Nigali Passage, which will help to show the need to protect the area. Presenting the database to relevant organisations should enable to establish a marine reserve. Further to this, it is hoped that some demographic information can be obtained from divers in the area; in order to accomplish this, consultation with representative of the Island Diver live-a-board to ascertain whether they will be happy to distribute questionnaires to divers on our behalf is to be undertaken. The project will also development of a questionnaire to establish diver demographics, rating of Nigali as a dive site on a world scale and willingness-to-pay of a reserve fee to dive there. It is anticipated that the results from the initial diver questionnaires will provide an economic rationale for the establishment of the site as a marine reserve. The ongoing photographic database will form the initial baseline data for the project, and a separate report will be produced and distributed to the local community.

By Will Matthews

Frontier runs a number of marine conservation projects, and offers a huge variety of other opportunities to volunteer abroad.


GROUPER DUO PERUSING THE REEF TOGETHER ON FRONTIER’S FIJI MARINE PROJECT

Groupers: these territorial chaps don’t tend to hang around with each other, especially on the reef where there is territory to compete for. Yet our conservation volunteers on Fiji Marine (FJM) have recently observed two individuals in close proximity to each other, swimming along harmoniously; a real treat when considering the usual intraspecific competition occurring between individuals.

Groupers are big fish; they have big mouths and big appetites and are used to controlling big portions of the reef to themselves, so you don't expect to get two near each other on the same piece of territory, and if you did, you’d expect to see some fish fisticuffs!

Groupers are not built for long distance swimming, and are slow movers with large mouths and stout bodies. Whilst there is some evidence that roving coral groupers (Plectropomus pessuliferus) sometimes cooperate with giant moray eels when hunting, there is no evidence to suggest they cooperate with each other. Large, conspicuous individuals of this group of fish are often to be found hiding alone in the reef, lying in wait on their own so as not to draw attention to themselves, rather than hunting out in the open or in groups. As their prey move past, groupers move suddenly, striking using a powerful sucking system made up of mouth and gills, swallowing their prey in one rather than chewing. They habitually eat prey such as fish, octopus, and crustaceans.

Groupers are only generally observed at the same location during brief mating displays (between couples, or ‘harems’ containing three to fifteen females) and spawning aggregations, where many females come together with the sole purpose of releasing fertilised eggs in a specific area; usually these aggregations form in the same place at approximately the same time each year. Most groupers spawn between May and August, where activity may last for just over two weeks for each of two to three months per year. However, some species, such as the Brown-marbled grouper Epinephelus fuscoguttatus in Fiji have been identified as spawning from November to January.

Groupers include many fish in a number of genera in the subfamily Epinephelinae, of the family Serranidae. Species in Fiji include the camouflage grouper, Epinephelus polyphekadion, blacksaddled coralgrouper, Plectropomus laevis, and squaretailed coralgrouper, Plectropomus areolatus. These species have been targeted by commercial fisheries in the past, and have been overfished in many countries, including many countries in Asia, and Fiji. Because of this, these and many other species of grouper are suspected to be endangered by the IUCN.

Data on species-specific abundance, catch and effort in the artisanal fisheries, spawning aggregation sites and recruitment success held by the IUCN on these species are in many cases data deficient, making it difficult to protect them and properly assess the population status of these species, which might be much worse that we anticipate. Information on spawning sites is especially important, as if these sites are not protected and become targeted by fisheries, no new fish will reach maturity, and populations will diminish even more rapidly. Knowledge of reproductive parameters, spawning behaviour of populations, monitoring of aggregations and impacts of spawning closures as part of fisheries management are all areas in need of updated research for this large group. Whilst Frontier has a wealth of data on the observations of groupers on FJM’s surveyed reefs, still more data is needed to help protect these magnificent fish.

By Will Matthews

Frontier runs a number of marine conservation projects, and offers a huge variety of other opportunities to volunteer abroad.


CROWN OF THORNS STARFISH

Coasts are losing their coral reefs for many reasons, most of which can be traced back to humans. Removal of top fish predators can encourage an increase of certain species, such as the crown-of-thorns starfish, which has already been observed on Frontier’s Fiji project

The carnivorous and voracious predator crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) is a large nocturnal sea star that preys upon coral polyps and brittle stars.  They climb onto reef structures, extruding their stomachs onto the coral, and release digestive enzymes that allow the starfish to absorb nutrients from the liquefied coral tissue. An individual starfish can consume up to six square metres of living coral reef per year, and populations have caused considerable damage to reefs in the past.

Since January 2011, the population of crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) has increased in the Lomaiviti Group of islands near Gau, Fiji. Whilst the rate of increase in observed numbers do not indicate a potential outbreak at this time, they do indicate the need for monitoring the dynamics of this species on Gau, which are often considered alongside other parameters in order to anticipate an outbreak. In particular, butterflyfish populations are known to experience heavy declines following decreases in live coral availability due to COTS outbreaks, and thus populations of butterflyfish should also be closely monitored.

In terms of control of this species following a future outbreak, two possible approaches can be made, whilst a third and promising control method using a transmissible disease is still in its infant stages. The first and more preferable solution would be to increase the natural predators of COTS through reduced commercial fishing in the area; should the population increase dramatically to levels where the coral reef is clearly under threat, population data recorded by Frontier may be used as leverage to help encourage a decrease in commercial fishing, and the following increase in natural predators may be enough to keep the population in check, and reduce chances of an outbreak of COTS. The second approach would be in the form of a localised effort through removal (hand-collecting) or killing by injection with sodium bisulphate. Whilst use of sodium bisulphate is clearly beyond the range of our projects, removal of individuals may be considered at this stage, however only well trained individuals should be employed for this due to the risk of perforation of the skin by the saponins in their tissues.

Frontier runs a number of marine conservation projects, including volunteer projects in Tanzania and Madagascar.