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Cyclone reef damage affecting fish stocks

Monday 9 May 2016 | Published in Regional

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FIJI – A warning has been sounded about depleted fish stocks in Fiji after recent investigations reveal severe damage to community fishing grounds in the path of Cyclone Winston.

Marine ecologist Sangeeta Mangubai has started an underwater survey of the coral reefs around Fiji which form the habitat of fish which supply people with food and earnings.

She told Radio New Zealand’s Dateline Pacific she’s seen massive chunks of coral broken off the reefs by the large waves generated by Cyclone Winston two months ago.

“There’s been a massive amount of dislodgement of very large corals, some of them up to two metres across, just broken off at their bases and really pushed up into the shallows, a lot of movement and breakage of the reef structure itself.

“We’ve lost a lot of habitat that’s very important for the inshore fish in particular so I think, similar to what they’ve seen in other countries, we’re probably going to see a decline in the fisheries over the next couple of years until those habitats can stabilise so that a recovery a process can happen.

“Based on predictions and what we know from some work in New Caledonia, some stuff on the Great Barrier Reef where they had a look at the impact of fisheries, my colleagues on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority advised me that they saw declines in fisheries up to two years after a cyclone.”

Mangubai agreed it is a very worrying for those communities that exist at a subsistence level.

“The Department of Fisheries wanted a bit more guidance for these areas, estimating how much fishing they could sustain after a cyclone because obviously people need to feed themselves.

“Some areas previously had commercial fishing licenses. They want some feedback on whether these places can sustain those licenses.

“And then at the same time a lot of communities, they’ve had these tabu areas, these seasonal closures that they set up, sometimes up to five years where they close an area off to build up the fish stocks.

“So a lot of them are wanting to know whether they should be leaving them, or because they are in a time of emergency, and that’s what they’re really set up for, should they be opening them and try to harvest them, to get a little bit of income so they can use it to rebuild their lives.

“So these are quite big questions we’re going to have to try and answer in the next four weeks at the sites that we do.

“What we’re going to do is, once we get across multiple different sites, we’re going to get a sense of the scale of the damage on the inshore areas is the first thing.

“The second thing is, very separately, the Wildlife Conservation Society in partnership with a whole lot of NGOs in Fiji have also done some surveys where they’ve actually gone around and questioned communities in which we try to find out for them what was their dependence on fisheries before the cyclone, for food and for livelihoods and what is it now – so we can understand what was very important to them before and then we want to match that up against the ecological data with the state of the reefs themselves.

“We’re hoping there might be areas that haven’t been damaged where we can say these are the areas where you could allow some level of, obviously within sustainable limits, commercial fishing.”

- Dateline Pacific