State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Combining Natural History Collections with Fisher Knowledge for Conservation in Fiji

Photo by Helen Scales
Photo: Helen Scales

A team of researchers from Columbia University and the Republic of Fiji has found a unique and time-effective way to improve the design of marine protected areas in on coastal fisheries in Fiji—and, potentially, around the world. This method, which was used to assess a proposed temporary fishery closure in the village of Nagigi, Fiji, is described in a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Abigail Golden of Columbia University and colleagues from Columbia, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the University of the South Pacific.

The researchers chose Nagigi village because residents there have already made a proposal to set aside part of their fishery as a temporary marine protected area, or tabu, that could last anywhere from a year to 10 years. Though the village’s elected headman had already proposed a specific part of the reef to be part of the tabu area, that didn’t mean the project couldn’t use some expert, targeted advice.

To figure out which species were most at risk for overfishing, and therefore should be a conservation priority in the tabu project, the researchers took a two-pronged approach to determine the reef’s species composition: While collecting fish for a museum collection using SCUBA diving, they also interviewed local fishermen to find out what species they targeted. With this information, they could make recommendations about the size, duration and location of the protected area based on at-risk species’ life history and habitat use.

“The beauty of this technique is that both of the methods we used—both the sampling and the interviews—gave us very different results,” Golden said. “If we’d only used one of these methods, we would have gotten half the picture.”

“This is important work with great potential to help scientists from a range of disciplines mesh traditional ecological knowledge, local management practices, and fisheries-based conservation to produce productive approaches that address overfishing.” added Sharyn Jones of The University of Northern Kentucky, an expert on Fijian cultural fishing practices.

This combination of destructive sampling with fisher interviews can potentially be adapted to help develop protected areas in other small-scale fisheries around the globe. The two methods combined may allow researchers to make recommendations about conservation projects much more quickly than either technique used alone, and make sure that the expertise of subsistence fishermen—who often possess rich, if undervalued, knowledge about their local ecosystems—is not neglected.

“Abigail has done some truly outstanding work in Nagigi. What really excites me is that, thanks to our Fijian collaborators, this research can seamlessly enter the conservation pipeline, so her research is having a real world impact” said Joshua Drew, a co-author and Golden’s faculty research advisor.

Golden’s work was funded in part by the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University and a grant from the Mindlin Foundation to Joshua Drew.

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