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New recognition, new collaborations kick off the International Year of the Reef

Posted on March, 21 2018

Fiji starts the year with a Ramsar nomination for its longest coral reef, while WWF and United Nations (UN) Environment begin a collaboration to highlight the urgent state of reefs worldwide. WWF insiders share a Fijian perspective, as well as the bigger picture.
Fiji starts the year with a Ramsar nomination for its longest coral reef, while WWF and United Nations (UN) Environment begin a collaboration to highlight the urgent state of reefs worldwide. WWF insiders share a Fijian perspective, as well as the bigger picture.

It is called the Great Sea Reef, Cakau Levu (the Big Reef), or Bai ni kei Viti (the Wall of Fiji). Some 260 km in length, it is the third largest continuous barrier reef system in the world, spanning four provinces on the northern part of Fiji, and providing food and protection for hundreds of thousands of people in this country in the South Pacific.

In January, a section of Fiji’s Great Sea Reef was officially nominated as a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance—most appropriately, during the launch of the Fiji International Year of the Reef (IYOR) in Fiji. Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama led the launch at Nukubati Island Resort off the coast of Macuata, one of the four provinces hosting the reef, along with Dreketi, Sasa, and Mali.

UN Special Envoy for the Ocean Peter Thomson was also at the event, where UN Environment launched a study of the Pacific coral reef status by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN). The forthcoming report will be based on information gathered from 128 islands in 19 countries or territories, which has so far confirmed that Pacific reefs are in better shape than many other reefs around the world, although they are evolving in ways that will definitely affect fisheries and ecosystem services.

The IYOR is being marked for the third time since its inception in 1997 by the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), a multi-organisation effort of which WWF is a member. The second IYOR was held in 2008; this year, the event carries forth the mission of strengthening awareness on the value of, and threats to, coral reefs; promoting partnerships among government, the private sector, the academe, and the public; carrying out effective management strategies for reef conservation and sustainable use; and disseminating information on best practices in coral reef management.

A new dimension will be added to the movement with a new collaboration between WWF and UN Environment, mainly to shine the spotlight on the coral reef crisis and its implications for nature and people. “The recognition of the crisis facing reefs, and the scale of interventions necessary to respond, makes it clearer than ever how crucial it is for all interested parties, and large institutions like the UN and WWF, to share approaches and resources wherever possible,” says John Tanzer, Leader for Oceans Practice, WWF International.

Heightened engagement

Both institutions have much to bring to the table, adds Tanzer. “WWF has a wide reach in terms of communications, advocacy, and on-ground work, and of course UN Environment has unparalleled access to leaders, governments, and organisations across the world. We will continue to engage with a range of other partners, too, ranging from the best scientific capacity to the leading on-ground, community-based approaches.”

Such heightened engagement is a response to the precarious state of corals all over the world, including the Coral Triangle itself. “IYOR is mainly about getting the word out on the urgency of this effort, to build focused, collaborative efforts for the years ahead,” notes Paul Gamblin, Global Oceans Practice Communications Manager for WWF. “We are working on how we can make the most impact working in partnership, applying the latest science, and seeing which solutions can work best in each context. The ambition is to scale up actions, and to learn as quickly as possible what’s making the most impact.”

In an online interview with Aljazeera’s Loes Witschge on January 29, 2018, Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, noted how coral reefs are “already one of the biggest casualties of climate change,” and how “those suffering the most direct consequences, economically and otherwise, are those who contributed nothing to the climate change."

“Many of the people on the frontline of the impacts of climate change and coral reef decline are in less developed countries,” affirms Gamblin. “They have the most to lose, and WWF will be focusing its efforts to work with communities to tackle this challenge. The coral reef crisis is shifting from a biodiversity crisis to a humanitarian crisis, too.”

As a country dependent on ocean resources, Fiji, a neighbouring archipelago to the Coral Triangle, relies greatly on the bounty of its coral reefs, including the Great Sea Reef. Fiji most recently demonstrated its commitment to global action on oceans and reefs when it co-chaired the UN Ocean Conference in June 2017, and served as President of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (UNFCC COP23) in November 2017.

Walking the talk

“It is logical and appropriate then that the IYOR had its first launch in Fiji, to showcase what Fiji is doing towards the sustainable management of the ocean within our jurisdiction, and to show that we are doing our best to walk the talk, amongst competing use of our seas and the adjoining landscape,” says WWF-Pacific Representative Kesaia Tabunakawai.

The disappearance of coral reefs could spell disaster for Fiji, and for nearby islands in the Coral Triangle. “The Great Sea Reef is Fiji’s longest reef system and supports a significant portion of the nation’s economy,” says Tabunakawai. “A mix of rising sea temperature, rising sea level, unsustainable fishing, overfishing, land clearings for infrastructure development, land-based pollution through sediments, chemicals from rivers and streams—these are the challenges faced by the reefs.”

The Ramsar nomination may just be the added push Fiji needs to further mainstream marine conservation. The Macuata province has been working towards improved management of its reefs and fishing grounds (known locally as qoliqoli) since 2004, Tabunakawai reports; the nomination process for the Great Sea Reef actually began in 2010.

“The hope of the provincial chief, the Tui Macuata, Ratu Wiliame Katonivere, is that elevating the site to Ramsar designation will lead to improved sustainable fishing practices, as this is a requirement of Ramsar certification,” says Tabunakawai. “It is hoped that with more effective management, the Ramsar Secretariat will provide endorsements that can be used for fishery products sourced from the site, thus potentially increasing income for the people of Macuata.”

Such improved practices would necessitate a greater awareness among the people of Fiji themselves. “People in Fiji know that the reef means fish, octopus, shellfish— seafood,” notes Tabunakawai. “I don’t think we fully appreciate yet the impact of changes happening to the reef in terms of sedimentation, chemical pollution, or coral bleaching, and that we need to be making drastic changes to the way we use the land and take resources form the sea.” Fortunately, some groups, such as the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area network (FLMMA), are already working on such broader awareness-raising.

Gamblin sees the urgent call for action as an opportunity for concerted efforts. The mass global bleaching from 2015 to 2017 that devastated reefs around the world was sobering evidence of the clear and present danger to coral reefs, he notes.

“However, we must now take full advantage of the growing momentum and commitment to drive action at a scale never seen before. Reefs are not all alike, so we need to apply rising levels of political will, resources, and collaborations by tailoring conservation approaches to the regional and local conditions better than ever before. This approach—matching conservation solutions with specific challenges in each place, and then scaling them up—will make the biggest impact.”

Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarma speaks at the launch of the International Year of the Reef (IYOR) in Fiji.
© WWF-Pacific / Ravai Vafo'ou