The future of Fiji's live rock



Posted on 15 January 2004  | 
Transporting live rock on a bilibili (bamboo raft).
© Secretariat of the Pacific CommunityEnlarge
A couple of hours west of Suva, Fiji’s capital, an unpaved road winds through the sugarcane plantations to the coast and Malomalo village. Of the 150 people who live here, one-third depend directly on the ocean for their primary source of income. But not all this income comes from fishing — a significant part comes from harvesting "live rock".
 
Live rock is actually dead coral or rock covered with coralline algae — pink- or purple-coloured algae found growing on rocky substrata in all of the world’s oceans. It’s used in aquariums to form a reef base in order to house tropical fish, corals, and invertebrates. The coralline algae also help keep the water clean.
 
The live rock trade is a booming business, growing at a rate of 12–30 per cent per year since 1990. With two-thirds of the world’s 1.5 million aquarium hobbyists, the US is the world’s largest consumer of live rock, representing more than 90 per cent of the trade. Fiji is a major exporter of live aquarium products to the international market.
 
This trade, which includes live coral and fish as well as live rock, is crucial for some Fijian villages, where the only alternative sources of income are low-skilled jobs in the sugarcane plantations and in tourist resorts. In 2001, over 800,000kg of live rock was harvested and exported from Fiji alone.
 
The extraction of live rock takes place along the edges of the reef, with villagers selectively targeting rock covered with light- to dark-pink coralline algae. The villagers break up slabs of rock using iron rods. These are loaded up onto a bilibili, a bamboo raft, and dragged onto the beach by horses, where the rock is placed into boxes and loaded onto a waiting truck which takes it to a processing facility. Once at the facility, the rock is placed under showers that continually spray salt water. The rock is trimmed of all visible green algae growth and graded according to shape, weight, and percentage of coralline algae cover. The rock is left under these showers for 24–72 hours before shipment.
 
In the early 1990s, the villagers of Malomalo negotiated a deal with Ocean 2000, an indigenous company that supplies live rock and fish for export. Fiji’s entire coastline is under customary tenure, with the rights to resource use belonging to individual villages. At the end of a series of traditional formal meetings, an agreement was reached with a contract signed by the Custodian of the Fishing Grounds and the sole license for live rock removal in the area belonging to the village Chief, Ratu Saula Maiyale.
 
Since 1994, live rock has been collected at Malomalo for Ocean 2000 by the traditional male users of the reef, both on a full time and an occasional basis. The rock is reimbursed for $US0.70 per kilogram, which is divided among the collectors ($US0.50), the custodian ($US0.10), and the marine reserve that forms part of the village’s traditional fishing grounds ($US0.10). Full-time harvesters extract up to 200kg per week. At an average of 150kg live rock per week, some 7500kg are extracted for sale by a single full time harvester in a year, contributing $US3750 to the annual household income.
 
The live rock trade is obviously is very important for Malomalo’s inhabitants. But after nine years of extraction, the villagers were aware that these activities could have long-term consequences. Large-scale removal of live rock can destroy habitat for fish and marine invertebrates, can undermine the structure of coral reefs, and can lead to increased underwater erosion. This is exacerbated as not all harvested live rock is accepted, meaning that much more is harvested than the official figures suggest. Large quantities are often rejected, with the wastage evident as piled accumulations along the beach.
 
Concern about the sustainability of the industry was also raised in Fiji and in other parts of the world at around the same time. In 2001, the Fijian government called for an environmental assessment to inform policy on the trade. Also at this time, WWF was exploring a partnership with the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) in relation to their newly launched certification system for the aquarium trade.
 
All of these forces collided last year, when WWF and MAC embarked on a project to answer the government’s concerns. The project’s goal is twofold: to develop community-based processes for wise coral harvesting and management, and to help the government structure sound policies and legislation that will support a sustainable aquarium trade.
 
As part of the project, WWF has facilitated a series of community workshops to raise awareness on monitoring, evaluating, and managing marine resources. In Malomalo, the consensus following the workshops was that the productivity of their marine environment and certain marine resources was indeed becoming depleted. As a result, the village designated part of its traditional fishing grounds a tabu area, banned from extractive use.
 
WWF scientists also visit Malomalo regularly to gather data from the site. In October 2002, a team from WWF set out to conduct its first-ever Biological and Socioeconomic Assessment of the area, looking at the status of the environment and aspects of the live rock trade in Malomalo. Other visits aim to raise awareness within the community and to help them with their management plans. The main focus at the moment is the Collection Area Management Plan (CAMP,) a prerequisite to being certified under the MAC.
 
Each time they come, the scientists are first invited inside, where they sit barefoot on woven mats and begin the ceremony to request permission to visit the project site. A gift of yaqona, the root of which is used to make the slightly narcotic traditional drink which is consumed at all traditional ceremonies, is presented to the chief’s representative, who then asks the elders to permit scientists to visit the project site.
 
It’s too early yet to tell the results of this collaboration, but dialogue between traditional knowledge and modern science has begun, a first step to ensure the long-term stability of a reef and the people that it supports. Malomalo has acted upon what many around the world have yet to recognize — that marine resources, although hidden from sight, are under constant pressure, and need sound monitoring and management to ensure their continued provision of life for us all. 
 
Sian Owen is Coordinator of WWF's Corals Initiative

Reprinted with permission from the Secretariat of the Pacific Community
Women in Fisheries Information Bulletin Number 13 December 2003

Further information
 
Threats to coral reefs
 
Coral reefs are a critical habitat that is extremely important for much of the ocean's biodiversity. They form breeding grounds and nurseries for about a quarter of the ocean's fish as well as many other marine animals. This makes them very important as sources of revenue for local and international fishing fleets as well as for providing food security for thousands of coastal communities. The latest estimates suggest that the world's reefs collectively provide close to US$30 billion per year in benefits which include fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection.
 
However, more than a quarter of all the world's coral reefs have already been virtually destroyed, and 50–70 per cent of coral reefs are threatened by human activities. These threats include coastal development and the related problems of increased sediment from erosion and agriculture and pollution from sewage, agricultural run off, and industry; damaging fishing methods such as cyanide and dynamite fishing; over fishing; damage from careless tourists; and global warming and climate change. 
 
WWF's work on coral
 
In recognition of the biological, social, and economic value of coral reefs and the severe threats they face, WWF has invested substantially in reef conservation. Over the past decade, WWF has initiated and supported field work in more than 100 corals projects around the world, investing the equivalent of tens of millions of US dollars.
 
To accelerate this work, WWF and ICRAN (International Coral Reef Action Network) have jointly launched a three-year advocacy initiative to support national and regional efforts to greatly increase in the area of coral reefs and mangroves under formal protection, and enhance both awareness and support for this protection. 
 
WWF's work on the aquarium trade in Fiji

In repsonse to growing international concern on the destructiveness of coral harvesting in exporting countries, WWF-South Pacific took an active interest in the local aquarium trade. WWF sees certification as an appropriate mechanism for establishing and supporting the sustainable collection of aquarium products, and is seeking to increase the scientific knowledge of coral reef ecosystems and species in key collection areas for the aquarium industry in Fiji. WWF is also developing community processes for managing coral harvesting. WWF-South Pacific hopes the project will contribute to the government basis for decision-making towards policies and legislation supportive of sustainable practices in the aquarium trade. 
 
The Marine Aquarium Council
 
The Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) is an international, not-for-profit organization that brings marine aquarium animal collectors, exporters, importers, and retailers together with aquarium keepers, public aquariums, conservation organizations, and government agencies. MAC's mission is to conserve coral reefs and other marine ecosystems by creating standards and certification for those engaged in the collection and care of ornamental marine life from reef to aquarium. 
Transporting live rock on a bilibili (bamboo raft).
© Secretariat of the Pacific Community Enlarge

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