Treasures of the Lau Islands
An expedition to a little-explored region in the Pacific offers insights, hopes for protecting coral reefs in a changing climate
JUNE 2, 2017
Editor’s note: Last month, a team of conservationists set sail from the island of Fiji. Their mission: to survey marine life in the Lau Islands, an unheralded group of islets scattered over thousands of square miles of the South Pacific.
They were seeking out species — but also clues to the health of these little-explored waters. With warming seas wreaking havoc on coral reefs and upending fish migrations throughout the Pacific, managing this area will be crucial for ensuring its resilience to climate change — and ensuring that it can continue to provide food and livelihoods for the thousands who call the Lau Islands home.
This story, the first in a series, sets the stage for a journey of discovery. Traversing hundreds of miles on a tight schedule — and with two cyclones ripping through the region — the team had its work cut out, as Conservation International’s Mark Erdmann explains. (Scroll to the bottom to read more stories in this series.)
Finally, we were on our way: After nearly a year of planning, I was eagerly anticipating our first dive into the crystal-clear waters of the Lau Islands in southeastern Fiji.
Our team of 15 scientists and conservationists, led by Roko Sau Josefa Cinavilakeba, a local indigenous leader, steamed out of Suva Harbor aboard the MV Sea Rakino on the first day of an 11-day marine rapid assessment of the coral reefs of the southern Lau group. Right behind us were four more of our team aboard the sailboat SV Viking, which was set to shadow the main expedition vessel while conducting whale and dolphin surveys and filming our activities.
The weather forecast was ominous: a pair of unseasonable cyclones brewing to the east and west of us. Yet spirits were high as the Sea Rakino plowed through heavy seas and the team reviewed scientific and diving protocols. The team had a heavily local flavor, including staff from the Fiji Department of Fisheries, the Lau Provincial Council and the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area Network. Researchers from Conservation International (CI), the Pacific Blue Foundation and the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation rounded out the group.
The primary objective of our survey was to assess the status and biodiversity of the reefs of the southern Lau island group in order to help inform the management of the 120,000-square-kilometer (75,000-square-mile) Lau Seascape, an area that includes about 60 islands (half of which are uninhabited) and is home to just over 10,000 people. (Scroll down for a video about the Lau Seascape.)
In 2016, CI and partners had achieved a commitment from the 30 chiefs of the Lau Islands to launch the Lau Seascape Initiative, which aims to empower and enable local communities to effectively co-manage, along with the national and provincial governments, Lau’s rich marine resources to ensure long-term food security and community well-being.
Struggles and ceremonies
Over the course of the next 10 days, we completed a nearly 900-kilometer (500-nautical-mile) journey, surveying 28 sites and putting in over 300 man-hours underwater. As predicted, the weather was our worst enemy, and the persistent 3-to-4-meter (10-to-13-foot) swells and 50-to-60-mph winds soon forced the Viking to return to port. Aboard the Rakino, we struggled at times to eat, sleep and enter data as the ship pitched back and forth, but the excitement of diving these little-explored reefs kept the team in good spirits.
Each day we would begin our survey at a new site, but there were local considerations to honor before we simply dived in.
At each island, Roko Josefa Cinavilakeba, in his capacity as Paramount Chief (Roko Sau) of the Yasayasa Moala cluster of islands within the Lau group, and a small entourage from the team would respectfully ask permission of the local community to dive their reefs with a sevusevu ceremony — a tradition when visitors arrive at a village. Once permission was granted, we wasted no time commencing our daily routine: three survey dives, data entry and a team debrief. It made for long but satisfying days.
What we found
As expected, our survey results revealed a mix of the exciting and the disturbing.
From a biodiversity perspective, diving the Lau Islands was thrilling: Over the course of the survey we recorded 527 reef fish species, including at least six new species as well as some 50 species that were not known to live in Fijian waters. Our coral specialists, meanwhile, recorded 206 hard coral species, including 10 to 20 species that they are still trying to identify.
Reef health, though, was highly variable. Some reefs were stunning, with more than 80 percent live hard-coral cover, while others were well under 20 percent and showed signs of past mortality from bleaching and outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, which prey on hard coral.
Pictures from an expedition (story continues below)
Some reefs showed extensive overgrowth by cyanobacteria, an algae-like form of bacteria, perhaps precipitated by the rampant overfishing of sea cucumbers evident at all the sites. Commercially important reef fishes like grouper and snapper were ever-present, but many reefs showed significant signs of overfishing.
Interestingly, it was a mixture of remote reefs and populated islands that showed the highest biomass of food fish. (While many assume that remote reefs have a higher abundance of fish than populated islands, this is not necessarily true: Reefs closer to villages are sometimes less overfished because local communities fish for subsistence and can protect them from overfishing or poaching.)
Importantly, reef sharks were observed at 26 of 28 survey sites; while never in large numbers, they were a good indicator that Lau’s reefs are overall still intact ecosystems that should rebound quickly if carefully managed.
Our findings revealed a complicated mosaic of spectacularly healthy and depressingly degraded reefs. Each evening our team would discuss the results, and it became clear that the time for improving management of these reefs is now. (Story continues below)
Research nets results
On the fourth day of the trip, we were treated to one of the most beautiful reefs I’ve dived in a long time: Navatu, a remote atoll under the customary tenure of the nearby island of Vanua Vatu. With healthy coral, clear waters and abundant fish life, it astonished even the most seasoned reef divers in the expedition.
The delight was evident on Roko Sau’s face as the divers came up from the dive and talked excitedly of their observations. At lunchtime, the Paramount Chief declared that he intended to make this stunning atoll a marine protected area (MPA). In practice, MPAs are internationally recognized areas of ocean where human activities such as tourism and fishing are closely managed to ensure sustainability.
We were all pleased to hear this, but I don’t think any of us fully understood Roko Sau’s resolve — the very next day, he called together Tui Vanua, the chief of Vanua Vatu, and his people and explained the importance of protecting Navatu. Within 24 hours of our impressive survey findings, Navatu was officially declared an MPA.
Surely this was a world record for decision-making speed in marine protection. In any case, it was a clear indication of the commitment of Roko Sau and the people of the Lau archipelago to manage these reefs for the benefit of their children and grandchildren. At CI, we look forward to working closely with the government and traditional communities of the Lau Seascape to help them realize this vision of sustainability. I can’t wait for my next dives in this very special part of our blue planet.
Mark Erdmann is Vice President of Asia-Pacific Marine Programs for Conservation International.
The team would like to thank Roko Josefa Cinavilakeba and the traditional communities of the Lau Archipelago for hosting the survey; Matt Brooks and Pamela Rorke Levy for generously sponsoring the survey; and Vaughan Wellington for offering the use of the SV Viking.