This will likely be an earnest, though potentially infrequently updated, account of my adventures, tribulations,
and everyday experiences as I spend two years working as an environmental Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

How to Create a Locally Managed Marine Protected Area

**Fair warning in advance – this is a really long post. It details the primary project I’ve been working on during my past eleven months here at the new site. I’ve told you all the nonsense I get up to when I’m not working, it only seems fair that I share the other half of my life here.

When I first came to this village after having so abruptly left my last site, I remember being worried about having to adjust all over again and fearing that they would expect miracles from me upon the moment of my arrival. I just wanted to unpack and at least learn the name of the village first.

The first morning I spent in my new house I was awoken at 6 am by some aggressive pounding on the railing of my porch. I had to fight my way through all my belongings littered about like I was auditioning for a game show on Japanese prime time. Groggy, disheveled, and as previously noted, a bit overwhelmed, I opened the door to find the village chief standing there cane in hand, giant glasses askew, and sporting a big gap-toothed grin that gave an overall impression of an elderly jack-o-lantern. I half expected him to start poking me with his cane as he began to speak.

“Tina, we need to meet today about the projects you’ll be working on. We’ll have to contact the turaga ni koro to get his involvement and you should really acquaint yourself with the village development committee leader as you’ll be working with him a bit and they have been asking about you down at the provincial offices and the Roko Tui would like to have a sit down to get a better idea as to what your plans are for the next 18 months. Here are some folders, books and materials that detail all of the work the previous volunteer accomplished for us and she left some specific guidelines as to how to carry on with these projects and ideas for other ones. And what are you doing sleeping so late? The children will be here any moment to brush their teeth!”

He said all this in a mix of broken English and Fijian and then gave the greatest laugh (though I didn’t think it was great at the time) – something like the count from sesame street but with more ‘yukking.’

Huh? The children will be coming here to brush their teeth? At 6 am? In my house? … All of them?? Confused and panicky about brushing teeth and lacking a comprehensive 18 month plan of action, I just sort of stood there wondering where exactly I should respond. I just hadn’t been serving in Peace Corps long enough to realize that ridiculous conversations like this that make me have an internal conniption about my apparent lack of value as a volunteer are just par for the course. Thinking back I think the chief was just trying to mess with my head, see if he couldn’t freak out the newbie for some before breakfast entertainment.

Anyway, in an effort to look on top of things (with my shirt on backwards), I started rambling on about the knowledge and experience that I had to offer and how in my last village we had been really interested in creating some tabu areas (marine protected areas) and…

Mid sentence the chief cuts me off with, “Oh, vinaka Tina, we’ll do that then,” and then storms off to accept an invitation to tea that someone shouted to him from across the village, yukking to himself all the while.

And based on that absurd discussion on my porch at 6 am, we soon began our project on establishing marine protected areas within the bounds of village owned waters... sometimes it’s not as professional or inspiring as you would think; even really important and influential work can have the most absurd beginnings.


Step 1: Form the committee

In the village, whenever a committee needs to be formed or a leader appointed to a project the villagers have a traditional way of choosing the appropriate people – during a village meeting the subject will be broached and the announcement made for people to step up; silence ensues until someone randomly shouts out another villager’s name and it is immediately seconded before any arguments can be made; then being decided, no one has to worry about the responsibility any more because now it’s so-and-so’s job.

For obvious reasons, being that I wanted the project to succeed, I decided to be a bit more deliberate about forming our committee so I called a meeting and invited a dozen or so individuals who spend nearly every day on the water, who know the area well and who would likely be the most interested in helping the project. I was showing a DVD on coral reef ecosystems in Fiji and apparently word got around that we would be running a generator to watch a movie because roughly 60 people showed up including children with pillows and of course grog. It was a regular movie night and, well, I guess the more awareness we do the better!

The following meeting was more successful as far as getting things accomplished; we managed to form a committee of interested individuals and proceeded to assign each one a role (leader, secretary, etc). The next day we started phase two – transect surveys.

Step 2: The baseline surveys

To get an idea for the overall health of the reef ecosystem that existed throughout our fishing grounds we, as a committee, went out on the water for two days to conduct surveys. Based on previous experience and having gleaned some useful knowledge from local resources, I devised a transect survey that considered four aspects of the environment to determine overall health:

            1) Corals – quantity and sizes; living vs dead; bleaching and disease
            2) Algae – quantity and patch size
                        - The more algae the less available real estate for coral
3) Invertebrates – giant clams, conch shells, crown-of-thorns sea stars, sea cucumbers
            - These first two being both ecologically important and thoroughly overfished
            - The COT sea stars are becoming over populated in our area and destroying                          corals
            - Sea cucumbers are also being heavily fished for their export value to China
            4) Fish – top predators (shark, barracuda, trevally, grouper) and butterfly fish
                        - Top predators are indicative of a healthy trophic system and thus ecosystem
                        - The presence of butterfly fish as corallivores indicates healthy coral growth

I created a makeshift underwater slate for each of these categories by stapling scrap water proof paper (that I had left over from an old school notebook) to peace corps provided laminated cards I would otherwise have used in an AIDS awareness session. Slapped a pencil onto each and voila. The transect I made by evenly hammering pieces of lead onto a 50ft length of clothesline that my brother sent me. Perfect leaded line!

One person per slate, we swam along the transect line up one side and observed our respective categories for 2 meters out from the line. Then we repeated this by swimming back up along the other side. Our entire fishing grounds (qoliqoli) is approximately 15 square kilometers, unfortunately, we only had enough boat time to complete 14 transects in randomly chosen spots throughout the qoliqoli. 

Coral that we hope may recover with some time under protection from feet and anchors.

About to go spearfish some lunch! Doing so many transect surveys can be make you hungry.

Nothing better than some fresh fish for lunch.
Sadly, I don't have any pictures of us doing transects or of the materials we used. All these pictures were taken on different trips but were more or less the same as the survey days.

Step 3: Choosing the area to protect

Once we completed our surveys, we compiled the data and, using a self designed ranking system, rated the health of the surveyed areas. We wanted to include healthy coral reef areas in our MPAs so that the damaged areas would have more success at efficient recovery (see # 4 below). But we didn’t simply make our decision for location based on this. We followed a list of seven criteria put out by NOAA, University of the South Pacific, and the FLMMA (Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area) Network:

            1) Include all different types of habitat in the managed/protected area
            2) Have several similar areas protected
            3) Protect areas that may be more resistant to hazard damage (bleach, cyclones, etc.)
            4) Protect more healthy areas over damaged areas
5) The areas should be big enough – at least 1/5 of the entire qoliqoli, with a minimum perimeter of 1 km x 0.5 km if possible
6) There should be buffer areas of spillover
7) Should include some permanent sites

Google map image showing the tabu areas and the locations of each transect survey we conducted to evaluate the reef health and choose locations.
On Boxing Day in the midst of festive meals, dancing, and grog parties, we met as a committee and hashed out our proposed tabu areas. These we then presented at the next mataqali (term for clan; most of the villagers are in the mataqali and there is only one in our village, everyone else is married in; the mataqali  makes all the decisions regarding land usage in the village) meeting, which was approximately three weeks later. After this it was presented at the bose va koro (village meeting) where it was discussed openly between all members of the village.

We had created a shoddy hand drawn map during our group sessions that we had used as a prop to discuss with at the meetings. During the bose va koro some villagers took the map at one point and started to draw new lines on it in different locations. Of course they were going back and forth in rapid Fijian, so I couldn’t really understand what the conversation was about until they turned to me and asked if it would be alright to create a second tabu area in this new location they demarcated (see the temporary tabu area on the map below).

…umm, yeah, that would be swell - !

Definitely not my shoddy hand drawn map showing the permanent (larger red area) and temporary tabu areas. Although it's not highlighted, the dark green area next to the permanent tabu shows all the mangroves that are also under protection.
Step 4: Get approval from the big guy

Well, we had succeeded in spreading awareness throughout the village and getting their overall support but it didn’t mean anything unless we got approval from the chief of chiefs of our province – Turagabale na Tui Cakau. He lives on Taveuni, the next island over.

It took another three months before we managed to raise enough money for our group to present our request to Tui Cakau. In the mean time, we went around to the families in the surrounding settlements and discussed our proposal with them to spread awareness and garner further support and respect.

On April 4th, we went for two days to Taveuni to make our case. In our traveling entourage we had two members or our committee, our village chief (who was crucial for speaking to Tui Cakau), a member of a nearby settlement who generously agreed to provide us with a whale’s tooth to offer during the ceremony, a giant sevusevu of bundled grog, and one squealing pig. Upon arrival on Taveuni we would be collecting ten pre-prepared bundles of dalo to present also.

Well, the pig died en route. We forgot the grog at the departing ferry landing point. Someone somehow forgot to call and tell anyone we were coming so there was no dalo ready for us and Tui Cakau was in meetings all day. Incredibly my two accompanying committee members pulled through by hiking into the bush and pulling three whole yagona trees and enough dalo needed to make the ten bundles (which they then did); they carried all this back down by themselves and proceeded to clean and prepare the recently deceased pig for cooking in an underground oven, which they also constructed on the spot.

By the time Tui Cakau was ready to see us it was almost 9 pm and the weather had taken a turn for the worse. A friend had agreed to drive us up to the big guy’s compound in his taxi and he apparently really meant drive us up. Tui Cakau’s compound is at the top of a small mountain and is only reachable by a narrow dirt road with steep drop offs on either side most of the way up. When we turned off the main road to start our ascent it looked as though we were driving into a wall, the grade was so steep. The torrential down pour was causing small, yellow rivulets of liquid mud to carve its way down the road; its pace seemed to be increasing. Sitting soaked in the backseat because my window was broken open, I was trying to see out the windshield with only one wiper half working just waiting for the dim headlights to jostle their way onto a tree or point suddenly in a downward position because the mud river we were driving up in this guy’s cab had finally swept us off the edge. 

After a few more minutes of speculating at our eminent demise, we arrived at the top and were greeted by an official big guy representative. Thirty seconds later we’ve turned around and are rafting our way back down the Yangtze because we were told that Tui Cakau couldn’t meet with us after all. Now normally this is when I would start to politely protest or aggressively demand that we do something because of all that it took for us to get here and we won’t be able to make this trip again anytime soon…dammit. But I’ve learned to just keep my mouth shut and see how events unfold themselves and low and behold when we had reached the taxi driver’s house again, where we were all staying, we got a call saying a rep would come down to us so we could do our presentation. 

After the gift presenting ceremony, my chief presented our proposal while I sat next to him acting the necessary part of a wall flower and just hoping everything was being said right. Well, we received our approval in the traditional sense and were told that Tui Cakau supported the plan but it wouldn’t be officially recognized until we present it at the next provincial qoliqoli meeting to be held the end of June. That way leaders throughout the province would know about it, could discuss it and agree as a group to support it. 
Yaqona root to be presented to Tui Cakau.

Our dead pig, prepared and presented to the rep for Tui Cakau along with the freshly pulled yaqona root, the two whales teeth (tabua), and the 10 bundles of dalo root in order to traditionally and respectfully request permission and support for establishing the tabu areas.

Step 5: Meetings and awareness

We had close to another three months to kill before we would be getting our official approval at this meeting so we tried to keep ourselves occupied by working on the bylaws for our entire qoliqoli, which would naturally include the restrictions for the tabu areas. We had two of our villagers attend a four day training to become Honorary Fish Wardens recognized under Federal Fijian Law. Naturally, I had to attend and get certified as well ;). We used the information we had gleaned on national fishing laws and considered what the village wished for its fishing grounds and used these to write the qoliqoli bylaws.

Working in teams at the Honorary Fish Warden Training to discuss and present destructive fishing methods.

All the newly certified Honorary Fish Wardens! My certificate is hanging in my kitchen.

Walota and Akuila - our two village fish wardens

When June finally came around my group was eager to get provincial approval so we could move on to demarcating the boundary lines. At the right moment, I was shuffled to the front to kneel in front of Tui Cakau to make our case once again but this time the presentation would be geared more towards the other leaders present. It was a bit awkward to do this because it’s apparently extremely tabu to turn your back on Tui Cakau, but he’s sitting at the front with everyone facing him. So my presentation to the attending leaders was made facing away from them. I had to hold my map behind me until my turaga ni koro came up to hold it for me.

Provincial Qoliqoli meeting held in June where our plans for establishing tabu areas was officially and publicly presented and requested of Tui Cakau (he's the one sitting in front of everyone in the back of the picture).
When I was done there was some discussion and what seemed like arguing but I was having difficulty following it or even seeing who was speaking. Eventually, Tui Cakau spoke. He thanked me for our project and the presentation and said that there was general support all around but said the group does have concerns about the supply of food for the local people if we cordon off these areas. He requested that we have a secondary meeting to follow up with the leaders in our direct area to discuss further and to determine if establishing the tabu areas would be directly beneficial to the people or not.

My time for speaking was over. So I had to simply sit and listen to what was said and to thank them once it was concluded. When all I really wanted to do was just debunk all these concerns they had right then and there so we could speak of it, discuss it and be done with it once and for all without drawing it out into more meetings and ceremony. But my respect for these people and their culture held me back, so it was back to the waiting game. 

 *Article from the meeting:

Step 6: Clarifying the benefits of tabu areas

When I heard people saying that they are afraid to implement a tabu area because that would mean they wouldn’t have fish any more I felt terrible. I felt like I didn’t even remotely do a fair job of getting the point across about the benefits of a tabu area.

Our village turaga ni koro and I on our way to Naweni Village for one of our outreach marine and tabu area awareness trips.
So I tried to make very concise points based on the resources I had available to me and present these to people every chance I had, including at those aforementioned follow up meetings. The Ministry of Fisheries even came to the village for a partnered workshop on marine awareness at which we hosted representatives from villages all up and down the coast from us.

  • Protecting just 1/5 of your qoliqoli with the minimum size dimensions of 1 km x 0.5 km will increase your fish catch in the remaining fishing grounds by 60 % within the first three years.
  • The boundary is for us, not the fish. They have a protected area to spawn and for juveniles to grow but they don’t know it’s protected; they’ll still swim in and out at will. As more juvenile fish grow and fill up the tabu, the amount that swim out will continue to increase. It’s the spill over effect.
  • Protecting the mangroves is crucial for two reasons – 1) mangroves are prime real estate for fish nurseries and will greatly increase the efficiency of the tabu area recovering fish populations; 2) everything we do on land has an impact on the sea- using herbicides/pesticides, burning mangrove trees, throwing trash and other wastes, penning pigs within the mangroves, all of it washes to the ocean potentially increasing the nutrient content and instigating algal blooms, which can out compete corals.
  • We want more than one tabu area primarily to benefit marine organisms that are sessile (fixed in one place) that adopt broadcast spawning as their method of reproduction. One of the more threatened species in our waters is the giant clam, a broadcast spawner. Say that there’s one clam in the protected area and it releases its eggs and sperm into the current; if no other clams exist close enough down stream (because they’ve all been fished out) then reproduction won’t occur. Having two tabu areas within relative proximity increases the recovery possibilities of organisms such as these.
  • The combined protected marine and terrestrial habitat from our two tabu areas is roughly 5.43 km2. This sounds like a lot until you consider that the entire village owned fishing grounds is nearly three times this size, which allows for ample opportunity to fish elsewhere.
  • The most important point I tried to impress upon all my audiences is that recovery and benefits may start off slow but that’s no reason to scrap the project; sometimes it takes a small sacrifice now to glean greater benefits in the future. This concept is one that many here struggle to grasp – they don’t see beyond today; they don’t consider future generations, what they’re leaving for their children

Presenting our tabu area project to members of villagers from up and down the coast participating in the marine awareness training that our village hosted.
Some of our villagers presenting about threats to the marine environment and possible solutions at the marine awareness training in the village.  

Member of the Ministry of Fisheries assisting our project by acquiring GPS coordinates during the marine awareness training.
Following these awareness sessions, we attended the next provincial qoliqoli meeting just last week. Again concerns were raised about our tabu areas and tabus in general but this time they gave me an opportunity to respond. And respond I did. When I was finished talking there was not a hand raised in the house. After that there was discussion about other villages wanting to establish tabu areas as well. Tui Cakau asked if the province could use the bylaws that we created in our village as guidelines for other villages looking to structure their qoliqoli and to properly establish tabu areas.

At the end of the meeting he requested to speak with me in private. Well as private as you can be when you are sitting in front of an entire crowd of people who were all trying to look busy. He shook my hand and thanked me for the work that we were doing with our project; he said that this is what the province really needs is something concrete and in black and white – structure, a guide, a means to help the villagers protect their marine resources and clear reasoning as to how such actions will help. He told me he is happy that my village is happy and wondered if he could burden me to do some workshops with other villages looking to set up tabu areas, because it’s good to conserve our environment like this - we have to look to the future after all. He paused and smiled at me. Deciding that bursting into tears of joy would qualify as overreacting, I simply said that I would be happy to help.

So within the coming month I will be traveling with two members of my committee to conduct workshops on how to set up a locally managed marine protected area. Who knows how far this chain reaction can go.

Step 7: Demarcation

We officially placed our first set of boundary markers on August 9th. I say first set because right now they are simply sticks with white flags stapled to them and we are hoping to replace them with buoys if we can collect enough of them.

Villagers placing sticks in dead coral and boulders to use as initial boundary markers.
Placing the boundary markers.
Zebra shark in the tabu area :)

Searching for appropriate holes to place the boundary markers in and we found an octopus!
The day we went out we were joined by the talatala (our district’s Methodist priest) who blessed the boundary markers and more or less made the start of our tabu area official. Naturally, upon completion of this task we hunkered down for a long night of grog drinking, guitar playing, and overall celebration.

The talatala (Methodist preacher) blessing the official demarcation of our tabu areas. This act more or less solidifies the tabu areas as being complete.

Step 8: And now?

And now what? Well, aside from trying to tweak things like the boundary markers and attain things like binoculars for monitoring purposes, we are looking to develop our tabu areas by starting giant clam and sea cucumber breeding programs. If we manage to take off with these two projects they will primarily be used to recover native depleted populations and then eventually they will be used as an income generating activity (particularly with the sea cucumbers). By farming these guys instead, we can better protect native populations and the villagers will still be able to earn money from them that can be used on other development projects.

Whew. Ok, if you made it all the way to the end here and somehow it still wasn’t enough for you feel free to contact me to see more pictures, our qoliqoli bylaws or the data analysis from our transect surveys, or if you simply want to impart any advice!


  1. Nice work. Thanks for the detailed description. Actually will help me with a new project I am starting in the Turks & Caicos! Stay well!

  2. Great project indeed Christine.

    Well done! I know my island of Yacata in the same province but to the south end of Taveuni will benefit from a similar project started some years now. Love to keep in touch over this.
    My Island website:


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  4. Maikeli March 24,2014

    Excelent work Christine.
    As a fellow villager of Nanuca (my mother is from the village which is mentioned in your blog site) Going to the village during the Holidays as I was schooling at that time in the mainland I have experienced first-hand those long cold nights of going out night diving & coming back in the morning with little catch.
    It is so depressing to see the coral dying out due to the lack of knowledge from my relations & I was wishing back in 2004 what if they only knew how to look after our marine resources we won't be lacking in food from the sea. Comparing what I was experiencing & when my grandfather used to go out nite diving I can remember waking up in the morning & marvel at the amount of fish they caught 3 to 5 big village pots would be filled with different kinds of fish... At this modern day the introduction of certain type of fishing methods like the use of Duva or poison has been the cause of unhealthy corals I believe with awareness things can change for the better..