Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is renowned for its natural beauty and wonder. Featured in many of Australia’s tourism campaigns, the reef represents one of the archetypal images of Australia. Australians have a special connection to the Great Barrier Reef regardless of whether or not they have personally witnessed its grandeur.
So imagine my surprise when I found that there was another great barrier reef located in the Asia-Pacific region.
Some refer to it as the ‘hidden gem’ of the South Pacific. For many, it is known as the Great Sea Reef.
At 200 km long the Great Sea Reef (GSR) is the third largest continuous barrier reef system in the world. It straddles the Northern boundary of Vanua Levu, one of the two largest islands in Fiji – the country of my birth.
The GSR has been part of Fiji for many millions of years and has helped sustain the livelihoods of the locals since they first settled on the islands. With 80% of the population living within 5km of the ocean, the GSR and other marine ecosystems are a vital resource for Fijians. In recent years, fish has become the number one domestic export commodity and tourism remains a substantial contributor to the Fijian economy. The sea and its bounty are ingrained in indigenous and non-indigenous traditional and cultural practices.
As with many coastal nations, the health and productivity of the marine ecosystem in Fiji has been declining. This has been due to a combination of factors such as an increase in severe storms, coral bleaching, agricultural runoff, urban development, unsustainable tourism, illegal poaching and unsustainable fishing practices. This has affected the livelihoods of the locals as the number of fish and other resources has decreased.
According to Tarusila, a representative of the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area Network, more time is now required to catch enough fish to feed families and sell at markets.
“Our great grandfather and mothers used to go out to the sea and within a short period they came back with plenty of fish. Nowadays people go out for almost the day with little catch – they come back with nothing”
As the climate changes and development in Northern Vanua Levu continues, the GSR – just like the Great Barrier Reef – will become ever more vulnerable. This is particularly concerning considering that we have only just begun to study the reef. In 2004, the first ever comprehensive scientific study of the GSR was conducted. Over twelve days, 23 sites across six major habitats were surveyed with the help of the local communities, non-government organisations and government members. During the survey, the team discovered 43 new species of hard corals and 12 species on the IUCN Red List such as the green sea turtle and spinner dolphins.
To protect this treasure trove, the late Paramount Chief of Macuata Province – Ratu Aisea Katonivere, brought community leaders, environmental organisations and government bodies together in order to develop and implement a management program.
“The challenge is to ensure that we conserve some resources for our children and their children. We should take action now, and I am proud that we have been given the challenge to manage the third longest reef in the world.”
Conservation of the GSR was built on connecting existing ‘qoliqoli’ – a specific area set aside for each village along the GSR to create a network of marine areas. To protect the fish and marine resources, the locals implemented ‘waitui tabu’ – or areas in which fishing is prohibited.
By establishing no-take areas, the marine ecosystem is protected and stock in adjacent areas is replenished. As fish and other marine fauna populations within the no-take areas increase, it spills-over into non-protected areas which helps to maintain food security and sustain the tourism industry.
Today there are over 400 communities working together in Fiji to establish a network of Locally Managed Marine Areas with 135 qoliqoli and 465 no-take areas. This puts Fiji on track to meet its commitment to have 30% of the marine environment protected by 2020 under the Convention of Biological Diversity.
I feel very lucky that the third largest barrier reef in the world is located in Fiji. Even more so considering that I now live in Australia where the largest (and more famous) Great Barrier Reef is located. Given that the Great Sea Reef still remains relatively unknown to science, I feel like there are many more secrets that will be revealed in the future.
Until then, I think the Great Sea Reef should be at the top of everyone’s bucket-list, including mine.