A Monitors Hope
“They wanted to know if I had gone mad, I mean telling them not to eat turtles was just crazy they would say because they had been enjoying it all their lives,” he said.
“However when we revisit places where our grandfathers used to fish for turtle, the Vatu Ni Vonu, we can’t spot a turtle because they have all gone to overfishing.
Were, a class eight dropout, understands the strange looks he gets from Galoa and Yaqaga islanders because like him they are fisher folk. Fishing and eating turtles is a way of life with its entrenched values and attitudes passed down through time.
“The biggest challenge as a turtle monitor is talking about the technical aspects of a turtle’s life and for which we must stop eating them because I know just from experience that turtle numbers have gone down,” he said.
“It’s not like many years back when it was easy to spot a turtle.
“Yet I’m happy that the Ffisheries department, the media and conservation organisations have been spreading awareness about the need to protect turtle numbers and I can see with islanders a shift in their attitudes.”
In his fishing lifetime, which roughly spans 20 years, Were has hunted down 60 turtles – at the rate of 3 a year. Like a thief in the night, he crept up on them and using a hooking contraption, hurled the startled turtle into his outboard. Other times, he chased the charismatic megafauna in his outboard.
“I never fished turtles to sell them, never! Only for food. Of all food derived from the sea, turtle meat was the most delicious,” he said.
“It’s the major prize for fisherman from Yaqaga, even turtle blood was a delicacy and we knew which turtles gave the best meat.”
Like the story of all of the 20 odd turtle monitors that belong to the Dau ni Vonu programme, organised by WWF South Pacific, Were’s epiphany, when he realised that unless he helped protect turtles, there wouldn’t be any around for future generations of his people, happened at Nakalou village in Macuata in 2008.
“After that training I stopped fishing for turtles, I still ate it, it was difficult to let go of that habit.
“Over time I realised that I couldn’t stand up with all confidence and convincingly make an argument for the protection of turtles if I still ate them, so I stopped – what do you call it – practice what you preach!”
Yaqaga Island lies along the Labasa-Bua coastline,North West of Vanua Levu and is about an hour by 40 horsepower outboard from the Nakadrudru outpost at Lekutu.
Were said the work of a turtle monitor isn’t easy because he has to face his elders, extended family and relatives and challenge their long held values and habits.
And when you espouse a value that conflicts with long standing traditions one is regarded as ‘viavialevu’ or arrogant and sold up to Western concepts and beliefs.
But Were said he tries his best to convince them that the conservation of turtles is not a western ideal, but rather a human necessity.
He tries to explain that if turtle populations were to be completely decimated, the ecological consequences will be worst felt by those that live in close kinship with nature and directly depend on marine resources as a primary source of food and income.
Determinedly, Were persists in sharing the ecological importance of turtles and is hopeful about the increasing level of awareness that he is witnessing and the positive feedback that he gets.
“I’m happy to see the change. Unlike before I used to see many rush to the nesting sites to raid it for eggs but that is changing,” he said.
“The battle cannot be won overnight, this is war but we are approaching it with peace, engagement and talanoa and it helps that the Fisheries department is also carrying the message to the islanders.
“They are also reading and hearing about it in the media so change is slowly happening.
“As a turtle monitor that is great news because finally turtles are being given a chance to survive.”
The Dau Ni Vonu network supports national goals to increase marine turtle populations as reflected by the Fiji Sea Turtle Recovery plan.