By Frederick Walters.
At 80km in length, 1km depth and over 1000km2 of surface area, Natewa Bay is the largest bay in the South Pacific. Located in the Fijian Archipelago on Vanua Levu island, it offers unusual conditions for its inhabitants. Many typical stressors facing marine life nowadays don’t seem to apply here as much as on many reefs elsewhere.
Cool waters from the bay’s immense depth buffer the rise in sea surface temperatures, coupled with a degree of storm protection from the hills surrounding the bay. A strong ownership among local villages and a lack of commercialised fishing helps to reduce pressure on marine life. Additionally, land-based pollution has been minimal, owing to a low population density and a largely subsistence-based production of food and resources.
Because of its protection, both coral density and biodiversity are still extremely high with plenty of coral recruits maintaining the diversity of species of this safe haven.
But what do we know of the bay? In fact, hardly anything! When Matthew and Sara first started their business at Natewa Bay in 2016, there had not been a single study here. Although government fisheries are regulated, enforcement is always more difficult in places as remote as the bay, because of which the local communities act as protectors and custodians of their own fishing grounds. Whilst there is no commercial fishing, subsistence fishing results in the removal of many fish species for food.
Since opening their conservation-based diving centre ‘Ocean Ventures’, a lot has been happening.
Matthew and Sara started stereo-video surveys and 3D modelling of the reefs, creating a baseline data set for the bay. This first step is crucial, as an established monitoring program will provide high-quality data, not only to track ongoing changes, but also to identify and evaluate potential areas for protection in future. Additionally, this might enable a better estimate of how healthy reefs could look like elsewhere, given the right circumstances and conservation techniques, as baseline data has tended to shift in recent decades. Furthermore, tourists and visiting research groups which Ocean Ventures is hosting are providing regular funding to this remote area.
“Many of the reefs we are now exploring were first shown to us by local spear fishermen, whom we have met after making sevusevu with many of the villages along the bay”, mentions Sara. Before Matthew and Sara explore a new area, they make a presentation of yagona, known as a ‘sevusevu’, to the village responsible for the traditional fishing grounds or ‘qoliqoli’. This is a well-established protocol that serves as a display of mutual respect and permission to visit the qoliqoli. They have also created a code of conduct for visitors to abide by, which aims to minimize the impact of divers and snorkellers on such a pristine environment. Equally, they are teaching locals to scuba dive, to show them the difference between healthy and heavily fished reefs and to introduce them to the topic of sustainable management.
Matthew: “Over the last year we have been working on a photo log of fish species found in Natewa Bay, and at the moment, have just under 300 fish species identified, most with a photo ID”. Both Matthew and Sara believe that endemic fish and corals might exist in the bay, owing to its size, depth and sheltered position between the mountains. “Some of our more unique finds include frogfish, halimeda ghost pipefish, ornate ghost pipefish and Napoleon wrasse” added Matthew. Some of the bay’s larger inhabitants include a resident pod of spinner dolphins and black-tip reef sharks, as well as occasional sightings of minke, pilot and humpback whales.
Matthew and Sara are members of the Savusavu Tourism Association, which meets regularly to discuss a variety of issues relating to the town and the regional development of tourism. “There is still a long way to go with certain more complex issues such as waste management and recycling, but there appears to be a real willingness from relevant stakeholders to ensure that Savusavu remains a pleasant place to live” said Matthew. “Future aspirations of ours include visiting local schools and talking about the importance of coral reefs. We also want to use the data collected from our surveys and our established relationships with local communities to help those communities establish a series of protected areas in the bay. Possible revenues from a reef fee paid by visitors can be used to provide a direct financial benefit to villages”. It is an ongoing process and progress can be slow at times. For now, however, both are still working on expanding their relationships throughout Natewa Bay and Fiji.