Sustainability – Lessons from Fiji

Posted on June 4, 2012
Written by: Cristina Zenato

Zenato-Fiji.pngI have just recently completed a shark diving trip to Fiji, a year apart from the previous one. While in Fiji, I stayed in a local settlement, in many ways a traditional village, like so many found in other parts of the world. And like any dive trip or travel experience in life I had the chance to deepen my understandings, learn several lessons, and reinforce personal ideas about the ocean, its people and sustainability. Being on these amazing islands for a few weeks reminds me that, globally, we need an adjustment in our approach to fishing, not only of sharks, but of all fish stocks in general.

Fiji is a world of fishermen, of gatherers from the sea. Their traditional village owns related pieces of the ocean and the coast line that they use to fish and harvest and no ‘outsider’ is allowed to use it without appropriate permission from the village. This also applies if you want to dive there.

Some of these areas have even developed and incorporated a very good educational program.

The local women harvest fresh water mussels and on rainy days and can be seen dredging the rivers mouths and low tide areas for crabs. Fish is sold on the side of the road, hanging from sticks, threaded through the eye swaying back and forth to attract the attention of travelers and buyers. If not on the road, fresh seafood can be found in the bigger cities at the local fish markets.

Fishing sustains the Fijian islands, the Fijian people, and is a necessary part of their culture.

To sustain their fishing culture and resources, some of these villages have created marine protected areas – wherein all fishing is prohibited – and they are now benefiting from a “spill over” of improved fish popultions into the adjacent areas that are open to fishing; and this seems to work to at a certain level. However, with the growing population, the demand for fish is increasing and there is a resulting pressure on the local stocks. Demands and pressure are also increasing from the outside as various fishing industries from different countries are moving in to draw from their rich local supply.

In general, you and I come from a different world -- a world of supermarkets, readily available food, abundant seafood choices, and vegetarian/vegan options. In contrast, most of these Fijiian villagers simply don’t have these options and nor are they financially unattainable. Many of the world’s poor can’t afford more ‘environmentally friendly’ food sources.

In this context, a simplistic approach that calls for stopping fishing all together is not going to work, is not realistic, and is set up for failure. At some point the need to sustain food sources for a community clashes with the need for ‘ecological sustainability.’ So it seems, the first step is to understand which stocks are still abundant, which ones need a break from harvesting, and which ones can be managed successfully. We need to understand that local peoples who depend on fishing for their living and culture need a new and workable solution.

I find that I empathize. I often think how would I feel if there was a movemnt to abolish scuba diving in general because of ‘environmental impacts’ how would I react, especially if the approach was one of “you are wrong, we are right”? What if there were no exceptions, no alternatives? I would find it very difficult to accept and give up a life and ‘culture’ I have had for the last 18 years, to halt my passion, my love and ultimately my way of making a living. I would search for a workable compromise.

fiji_map.pngFor our oceans, such a compromise would include a global plan for more marine protected areas combined with alternative, sustainable solutions for artisanal fishermen, in some cases including government assistance to begin a different endeavor, such as marine ecotourism. It can be difficult to talk about ‘sustainability’ if the result is that local people can’t be sustained by their own resources. Rather then attacking their fishing culture we need to start communicating and cooperating to better understand and educate; and hopefully bring about meaningful change that is good for people, their communities and our oceans.

But where do we draw the line? Many recent scientific studies reveal that shark stocks, all over the world, are in significant decline. Numbers are relative, but if we talk about sustainability, sharks need to be eliminated from any fisheries list. Few, if any targeted shark populations can withstand current fishing pressures and if current extraction rates continue could bring about still more rapid declines of the remaining stocks. Through my personal experience, supported by recent economic studies, it seems that responsible shark diving as an industry can be a sustainable business alternative.

However, shark diving only covers a small fraction of the market. So if we want and we need to protect sharks on a wider scale, we need to come up with still more shark tourism options. But here the risks increase when operations are created without taking in consideration the local situation and the local economy.

And thus, this is the lesson I learned in Fiji: viable protection needs to come from within the place where sharks are located, it needs to be understood and promoted by the local people, and it needs to be presented in a spirit of cooperationa and understanding. My personal opinion is that we need to support education and engage in an open conversation with all parties involved, including ourselves, the visitors.