My DukeEngage project in Fiji is over, so this will be my last blog post. There are three sections here, the first is a more typical reflective blog, the second is a funny story from my time in Fiji, and the last section is pretty scenic pictures. Feel free to skip to the part you want.
Reefs, Restaurants, and Resorts
If I’ve learned anything about conservation work, it’s that this work is difficult, in the sense that it requires an immense amount of patience. The coral reefs on the Coral Coast of Fiji have definitely been depleted, but to restore them would take several multitudes longer than the time it took to destroy them. Over the 8 weeks I have been working with my supervisor Victor, we’ve planted close to 5000 young corals, but this number is meaningless. These corals have to survive against bleaching, against storms, against predators like crown-of-thorns, but worst of all, against people. Conservation work is one step forward, and two steps back. The community can establish protected areas, but overfishing and poaching are still problems. We can plant hundreds of corals, but one clumsy tourist can crush them. Environmental conservation has little to do with the science of the natural world, but rather the interactions of people to this ecosystem.
Nonetheless, what if it is impossible for the Coral Coast of Fiji to return to its former glory? The days of old where a subsistence lifestyle here in Fiji would die along with the reefs. But what if people turned their fishing lines toward the road rather than the reefs? Every day, tourists pour into the country, like canned fish packaged into metal cars, they speed down the highway. The revenue from these tourists at the resorts certainly doesn’t benefit locals; the resorts simply pollute the rivers and siphon money out of the country. One of the initiatives that is being emphasized is to encourage the locals to develop a cottage industry. Locally run food stalls and eco-tours advertised by the side of the road, like bait for the tourists. The income generated would offset the need to overfish the reefs for food, making it easier to restore.
Of course it’s not that easy. It’s not easy for people to break away from their current culture, and their current lifestyle. Think about how hard it is for people in the US to decide to start a business. It’s the same in Fiji. Furthermore, the only businesses around are these big resorts and successful restaurants. There’s no model of “start small and grow big” like how most businesses start. Thus we’ve reached a cultural/social impasse, where only the cars drive by.
(This would be a great future Duke Engage project, and had I known about these issues before coming to Fiji, I would have loved to add a component of small scale local entrepreneurship to my project.)
A Funny Story
So a few weeks ago, I wanted to go fishing. At this point, I’d already accompanied some locals on their fishing trips to see what tools and techniques they used. Not long after, I had established myself in the village as a fishing failure: I could not spearfish. Fish would slip under me when using a net for fish-drives. Hell, at low tide, the reef flat is exposed and you can just walk along looking for octopus sitting in holes waiting to be caught … and everyone can do it but me. (If I was stranded on a deserted island, I would actually starve. Thank goodness there are also fruit trees in Fiji.)
I wanted to go fishing with hook and line, since that’s how I’d always grown up fishing. So I gathered up my gear, cut up some bait, and took a paddleboard out to sea! The afternoon wind was picking up, and the tide was rising, so the seas were a bit rough. Undeterred, I was determined to catch a fish. The area where the locals fish is also reef flat, with no more than 2 feet of shallow water at high tide. As I paddle to this area, I turn to my left and notice a tree stump.
“Hmm, that’s interesting, I don’t recall there being a tree stump here…” I thought to myself.
… Then. It. Started. MOVING.
“Ohhh … that’s not a tree stump…that’s a shark fin.” I froze and watched the shark swim away.
After it swims for a couple of seconds, it freaking turns around and looks towards me. Then it submerged out of sight.
It was just a non-aggressive reef shark, no bigger than a few feet long… Still, I went home and baked a cake instead of fishing. The end!