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Tuesday, November 28, 2006


The following is one posting in a blog written by Rob Wright, a Fiji Islander, called "Hook, Line and Sinker". Although this was published as a series of weekly articles in The Fiji Times between 1957 and 1969, it was very much a weblog in the modern sense of the word. It provided a personal viewpoint on an issue close to the heart of the writer (and most of his readers), and it provoked feedback, both in the Fiji Times Letters column, and on the waterfront.

Rob Wright's Fiji Times columns were published as a book in 1969. Hook, Line and Sinker was published by the Fiji Times press, but my dog-eared copy does not have a title page, and I don't know if it is still in print. I thought it was well worth giving you a taste of it though, and if you can get your hands on a library copy it makes fascinating reading.

I might even ask the Fiji Times if they will allow us permission to post it on the website, if it is not in print.



Horace was a well-behaved youngster, even for a cod, and entertained no firm ideas about cutting adrift from the family fold until they all swam past the small channel. He was in the wake of his Mama, but swimming closer to the shoreline than his brothers and sisters. They were on their way to the Bay of Islands, near Suva, when they passed the outlet and he received the first tantalising taste of the stuff that came down the channel. It was ambrosia, to him. He opened and closed his mouth dozen times, allowing the flavour to sift slowly through his gills while he wallowed with delight. So taken was he with this new sensation that he had forgotten about the rest of the family. When he looked round, they had gone, and Horace was alone.

Following the channel through the turgid water, he swam slowly upstream savouring the water every now and again to make sure that he was getting nearer to the source. The flavour became stronger, and he now was picking up small pieces of food, beautiful stuff which he rolled round in his mouth before passing it on to his gullet. Finally he came to the source. It came from the river bank where the food was funnelled into the stream from a gutter. He lay at the bottom picking up the scraps as they filtered slowly down, then, surfeited and sleepy, he swam off in search of a hole and a doze.

As he swam, small schools of damu (red snapper) eyed him suspiciously, for this was their territory which they shared with the qitawa (tiger fish) and saqa (crevally). Nearer to the surface, small ogo (barracuda) eyed him with distaste. Witless big brute, they thought. On the sides of the muddy banks, kuka crabs gazed apprehensively at him as he poked his nose into anything which looked like a hole, and here and there a qari (mangrove crab) raised its claws defensively as he hove in sight. And so it was that Horace came to make his home in the river.

In the days that followed, Horance began to set a pattern of day-to-day living which, in the years to follow, rarely varied. Most of the time he spent beneath the bank where the food came into the stream. Occasionally it would gush in as watery red wine. On other occasions it would be thrown in as great chunks. He shared much of it with the damu, qitawa and ogo who, after his long residence, had come to tolerate him.

The only ones he couldn't get on with were the cheeky small sharks which came in from the sea, full of their own importance and bad manners, and snatched and grabbed at everything.

While they milled about lunging at one another, he would lie quietly on the bottom and get the food as it sank down to him, as he knew it would. But the sharks did not stay long. They were too temperamental to stay in the river. They had to get out into the ocean and get the mud out of their gills.

Once in a while, Horace would add to the now familiar menu. He would leave shreds of food stuck in his teeth, then sink to the bottom, open his mouth and lay still. It was quite effortless to remain like this - even for hours on end. Qari, with their keen sense of smell, would soon be attracted to the food, and they would poke round his teeth cleaning it all up. When they were through, he merely closed his mouth on them.

Once in a while Horace would get the itch. This he knew was caused by sea lice, so he'd swim out of the mouth of the river and beyond to the harbour and the nearest coral head. Here he'd find the blue-striped wrasse, a tiny fish barely three inches long, which was adept at picking the lice from his body.

In the many years Horace spent in the river, he came to know that there were other things besides fish in the world. He had the wits scared out of him on a number of occasions when long shapes would zoom overhead, creating a terrific din of staccato noises with long trails of white foam.

On other occasions he would see scintillating shapes following in the wake of these creatures, but having sampled one - a peculiar device which pricked him when he closed his lips on it, he decided it wasn't a good source of food. Then one day he saw a shape which had no noise at all. It glided silently on the surface of the water with such ease that he rose to have a clear look. In a flash, a searing pain ripped through his body and his back was twisted with the force of a tremendous blow. He dived frantically for the deeper part of the river, straining desperately to free. himself from the thing which stuck in his back. Only by rubbing it against the bank was he able to do this, and for days afterwards, he lay in his hole to recover his strength. Horace getting old, and the once sleek form of the cod was now bulging with fat.

One evening at dusk, Horace moved out to get his meal only to find the pesky young sharks back again, gorging on everything they could pick up. They annoyed him intensely, but he'd show them. When the next morsel came into the water he shot upwards to interpose his bulk between the food and the sharks, and smirked slightly as his mouth closed over the food. Simultaneously Horace knew he had erred. He felt a terrific weight on his jaw and knew he was being pulled to the surface. He mustered the muscles which had lain dormant for so long, and with a gigantic thrust, surged towards the bottom. For a time held his own, but relentlessly the pressure increased until, for the first and last lime in his life, Horaces' head appeared above water. It was the end.

Fred Dukuram and his two companions looked at the great bulk which lay on the concrete slab of the Suva abattoir on the bank of the Tamavua River.

"I bin know that fish for two year," he commented, "when I see him I no telling anyone. I know one day I must catch him. Two, three times I see him and nearly get him. My boss say ‘him no big fish-only shark’. But I know. On Friday when I look in the river I know he's there. I put a big piece of tripe on a big hook with a strong line and throw in the river and the cod take him."

Horace had put up a game fight but was unequal to three muscular men and their companions who joined in the tug-of-war. When his massive body was placed on a scale it tipped the beam at 396 pounds, gutted. His gut, which contained qari and other morsels, would have weighed at least 25 pounds so his fighting weight would have been about 420 pounds. His back bore evidence of a deep wound which had healed. What was his age? Who knows? Ten, twenty, thirty years? When groper of this type make themselves a home, they stay in it for years.

[This species of fish is known variously as the giant sea bass, jewfish, cod, groper and, in Fijian, kavu. Its scientific name is Promicrops lanceolatus. They have been known to attain a weight
of 1,000 lb and a length of twelve feet. Horace was over seven feet long.]


This 450 lb grouper was caught in Florida

Monday, November 27, 2006

Whale workshop at SPC Noumea today

We're hosting a workshop on whales today, at our conference centre in Noumea, New Caledonia.

More specifically, a workshop co-organised by the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium and "Opération Cétacés - Nouvelle-Calédonie", to develop a protocol for the comparative photoidentification of humpback whales and a catalogue of individuals in the South Pacific, with the hope of arriving at a census of the population of humpbacks travelling within the region.

There was a beautiful video screened during the opening ceremony, which used local footage and which I hope I can get my hands upon later.

We (SPC) don't have a lot to do with baleen whales ourselves, in fact we don't have a lot to do with marine mammals in general nowadays. When our environment programme moved to Samoa in the early 90s they took all of the work-area on threatened and endangered marine species with them.
Our fisheries programmes still have a bit of an interest though, because interactions between tuna fishing boats and some of the smaller toothed whale species seem to be more common nowadays.

I don't mean the kind of interactions that used to happen in parts of the eastern Pacific tuna fishery where purse-seiners used to target porpoise schools because of their association with tuna. Porpoises are not good indicators of tuna schools in the western Pacific, and purse-seiners target tend to target floating objects here, like drifting logs, or man-made fish-aggregation devices, when they are not targeting free-swimming schools of tuna.

No - I'm talking about the kind of interaction that seems to be entirely in the marine mammals favour, where pods of pilot whales traverse long-lines, "cherry-picking" the fish off the hooks.

I've never heard of any whales being hooked up themselves while they are doing this - they seem to know exactly how far they can go, and they usually leave the head of the tuna on the hook, neatly sheared off behind the gill-covers. Sharks will also take fish off hooks of course, but sharks don't seem to be half so clever about it. Sharks often get hooked up themselves, or they leave a ragged, sniggled carcass on the line - very different from the clean table manners of toothed whales.

The other difference is that sharks don't operate as a group. They'll take fish here are there, but if a pod of pilot whales discovers a longline they will often strip the entire line of fish, and then move onto any nearby boats. The only remedy is to head for the hills, and I've heard of boats steaming for hours trying to shake off a pod of whales.

From the figures I've seen so far, whale predation does not appear to be a huge problem for tuna boats. It still appears to be less than shark predation overall. But where shark predation is diffused across the whole area, whales predation seems to be locally intense. And many fishermen reckon that shark predation is decreasing along with shark populations, but whale predation is increasing in intensity - they reckon that the whales learn this behaviour off each other.
Of course whales have always been partial to a bit of commensalism with their human colleagues.

And "interactions" with killer whales have long been a feature of the Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishery.

I'd be very much interested to know how much whales DO learn this behaviour off each other - whether it is social learning - or individual learning based on instinctive feeding patterns.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Orange Roughy on the endangered list

Just saw in a press release: "The Orange roughy fish species will be added to the threatened species list under Australian environment law, the Australian Minister for the Environment & Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell, has announced"

I guess Orange Roughy will also now be added to Cod to further justify the chorus of "fisheries management has failed!" or "fisheries science has failed!", whilst the likelihood that politically-expedient decisions were made (or rather politically-inexpedient decisions were not made) in the face of advice from fisheries scientists or management specialists is overlooked.

If this does happen, I will be claiming, bitchily: "Isn't it interesting how, when a fish stock collapses nowadays people say that 'fisheries management has failed', but when a species goes extinct people don't say 'conservation has failed' "

The reality is that both fisheries management and marine biodiversity conservation have thousands of ongoing successes every day with fisheries that are not collapsing and species that are not going extinct. And the failures that do happen are object lessons in how to do it better. From my perspective as a semi-outsider, fisheries management has gone through some dramatic and radical changes over the past decade. In fact I would suggest that "fisheries management" will cease to exist soon as a distinct discipline and will need to be called something like "aquatic socio-ecosystemic management" (or hopefully something a bit less geeky).

And fisheries science is evolving rapidly. Some of the less-fit ways of thinking are dying off and the discipline as a whole is under intense selection pressure as it moves from having to worry primarily about the status of stocks - with the ecosystem in a purely supporting role - to worrying about the status of of the ecosystem itself. And into thinking about human beings not as an alien irritant, or a potential source of data, but as a components of the ecosystem.

I emphasise that these are just a few knee-jerk reactions off the top of my head (no Chelsea goalkeeper jokes please) and I'd be very happy to be told exactly where I am mistaken.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

MPAs for fisheries management

MPAs with fisheries management objectives. Are they likely to work?

We've been asked to provide an opinion on this question by Pacific Island fisheries departments through the SPC Heads of Fisheries Meeting, for two years in a row now.

It's a question that I have automatically shied away from trying to answer because the whole issue of MPAs has become so political. It's one of these issues that polarises discussion - it's a question framed in black or white - you're either for MPAs or you are against them. If you say anything for them you are labelled as a "closed-minded conservationist" by certain sections of society, and if you say anything against them you are labelled as an "apologist for the fishing industry" by others.

But its a question that we have to say something about - its on the list of things that we have to tick off before the next SPC Heads of Fisheries Meeting or else I'll be looking for a new job. This blog is a useful opportunity to try and get some thoughts in order, and get a bit of feedback (if anyone is interested in saying anything).

And I'm going to upset both sides now by going down the middle.

I reckon that there are many things that MPAs are useful for, and there are other things that you will not achieve with an MPA - that some other management tool could do a whole lot better.

First of all, I've got no complaint against any MPA that is set up for the purpose of conserving an area for heritage purposes, or to keep an area in something like pristine condition, or to attract tourists, or for education, or suchlike goals.

My only complaint is about the advantages being claimed for fisheries out of MPAs.

I just can't see envisage many cases where you take an island, assess the fisheries production, set aside 30% of the fishing area to be banned to fishing, measure the fisheries production again, and find that the total production of the island has increased. Even after 10 years of protection.

As far as I can see, MPAs are only likely to be useful in fisheries management under certain conditions.

1. They are likely to be a useful management tool for species which have a "spatial bottleneck" in the lifecycle - when there is a place where they are exceptionally vulnerable to targeting, but equally amenable to protection. I reckon that area-protection is unequivocally useful for species which group occasionally into spawning aggregations (where do you think the word grouper came from :-) and for species that need to move between sea and river to spawn. However, this is nothing new to fisheries management, either traditional or modern. And you will probably need a different protected area for just about each species, since they don't all spawn at the same place.

2. Where there is gross overfishing - where the biomass has been fished well beyond the level that produces the optimum sustainable yield, and where a reduction in fishing effort will actually result in increased yield. Of course, this increased potential productivity will only be available to fishing if younger fish migrate readily out of the MPA and don't just stay there. And of course there are other fisheries management tools which are capable of reducing fishing effort in overfished fisheries (such as saying "no" to licence applications) and making the resultant sustainable increased production available for catching.

3. As a breeding refuge for "old mothers" who contribute disproportionately more to recruitment than the same weight of younger fish. Again, the resultant juveniles or larvae need to be capable of migrating out of the protected area in order to actually contribute to fisheries, and the old mothers need to stay inside the area. Maximum size limits might do the job better.

4. As a long-term but still temporary reserve for building up stocks for special occasions, such as a traditional funeral or wedding, or religious feast. Or as as a form of pulse-fishing, where fishing for certain species is only allowed during short "windows" of opportunity. This can be useful for non-food fisheries (such as mother of pearl shell) or as a rotating series of closed areas, for food or export fisheries. Such "temporary MPAs" are traditional in many areas of the Pacific, and can mitigate the angst that most people feel if they think their ownership rights are permanently subsumed by the State. But most authorities do not consider temporary MPAs to be MPAs at all. It is felt that to have any conservation benefit they must be permanent. This is a reasonable position, but remember here that we are not talking about MPAs for conservation benefit but for fisheries benefit.

Well, that's some of the possible advantages of MPAs in the management of certain fisheries. But I can also think of potential disadvantages.

1. MPAs are attractive to poaching, and unless they are well-respected or well-policed, years of accumulated benefit can be wiped out in just a few poaching episodes. Spending your enforcement resources on more readily-complied-with regulations across a whole island may be more effective in the long-term than concentrating them on absolutely protecting a proportion of your area.

2. If you kick the fishing community out of a particular area, they either need to find alternative livelihoods, or add to the fishing pressure on the surrounding area. And if you have a sustainable fishery in the surrounding area this additional pressure may be enough to collapse it. In short - setting up an MPA in an island where fisheries overall are at optimum sustainable levels may actually lead to fisheries collapse. You have to be sure that there is either gross overfishing occurring, that there is obvious "underfishing" occurring, or that alternative livelihoods are readily available. And that last one is a biggie. People usually go fishing because that is their chosen, preferred lifestyle, or because they are forced into getting their protein from the only source available to them. If alternative livelihoods were available, and preferable, they would probably be in them already. We are right now taking a look at the preceived outcomes of "alternative income generation" schemes for Pacific fisheries over the years, and there don't seem to be too many success stories. But that is another blog.

My worry is that coastal communities in the Pacific Islands are going to be told that MPAs are going to increase the amount of fish available to them as food. And I don't think this "available" increase is going to happen. People see the fish numbers increasing in reserve areas shortly after the declaration of protection, but nobody apparently looks at the production of the whole island. They just look at the increasing biomass within the reserve.

Again, I'm not disputing that biomass of fished species does normally increase in Pacific Island MPAs - just the assumption that this biomass will somehow lead to overall increased food production for the whole island. It will certainly produce greater stability in surrounding fisheries - but insurance is not free. It will certainly be beneficial as a potential tourist attraction - and this is possibly the most likely form of "alternative livelihood" to be considered - but tourism is not possible everywhere. It will certainly be beneficial in attracting organisations who have global objectives for conserving biological diversity and who may be willing to pay to see these goals achieved. But I worry that some of these organisations do NOT want to pay to see their goals achieved, and instead may try to claim that the coastal community will be compensated at some future date by increased food production, or that alternative livelihoods will be found and will be sustainable.

(Just think - how easy is would it be to change the economy of your own neighbourhood? If you work for an NGO or government, how easy would it be if someone said that your current livelihood was unsustainable, that you had to get out of it, but they had found a business opportunity for you. Just form a cooperative with your neighbours and apply for a loan ...)

It may possibly be beneficial for certain grossly-overfished and particularly vulnerable species - export species like sea-cucumber and some of the larger fishes taken by commercial spearfishing and for the live food-fish export trade. But here the most effective form of "MPA" is likely to be spawning aggregation site protection, and these are small, diverse, highly-targeted areas, usually seasonal, and this type of area protection does not fit the profile of the MPAs that are required for biodiversity protection or other purposes.

You might want to note that most Marine Protected Areas regulations only protect the area against fishing - they don't protect it against development-driven land-based impacts. In some coastal areas these impacts can be considerable. But this is a point that applies to all types of MPA - not just those with fisheries management goals.

One final point - and this is a claim that has been made at the very highest level - is that the declaration of substantial MPAs is going to be the simplest and most effective way of implementing the "ecosystem approach" to managing fisheries and marine ecosystems. I'm not going to go into a detailed set of reasons why this claim worries me - you can probably glean most of it from what I have said above.

I must stress again one last time - I am not against Marine Protected Areas. I personally feel that it is necessary to set aside areas as "wilderness" for all sorts of reasons. I also feel that MPAs are necessary to lend resilience to fishery and ecosystem management plans, as ecological "insurance". And MPAs are also useful where there is the possibility of developing alternative livelihoods from tourism, or in the case of areas blessed with high Pinctada margaritifera productivity - from black pearl farming etc. But all of these goals can only be achieved at a cost - the cost of reduced fishery production. I just don't like to see people told that there will be no cost - at least not without some proof that this will be so.

Pacific Islands Women in Fisheries Network

The Bulletin for the SPC's Women in Fisheries (WIF) special interest group (SIG) has been in limbo since the last issue was published, in April 2005. Trouble is, Aliti Vunisea, who was our coordinator for the network, got promoted into another job at SPC and has had her work cut out doing full-time socio-economic surveys of reef-fishing around the Pacific Islands, with no time left over for WIFSIG.

And I've just had my backside kicked by the SPC's governing council last week for letting our focus on women in fisheries drift.

It's all very well me claiming that we have "mainstreamed" women-in-fisheries issues into our regular work-programme - that we're concentrating on providing equal access and opportunities to our training courses - and that we're getting better statistics on social aspects of fisheries than ever... It's obvious that only a visible focal point for women in fisheries is acceptable as an indicator of our attention.

Teaching fish-farming to women in Fiji
(image courtesy of Satya Nandlal - SPC Freshwater Aquaculture Officer)

As with all service industries our watchword is: "the customer is always right", and so we are doing our best to revitalise the network. We don't have the resources to appoint a full-time network coordinator - in any case our SIG networks don't operate that way and one of their strengths is that they draw on expertise outside SPC - but Dr Veikila Vuki has kindly agreed to pick up the baton for a period.

There's more about Veikila in the press release we put out a couple of days ago. This is just to introduce her to a possibly broader audience and to provide a more personal welcome. I've known Veikila for a long time. In fact I moved into the job that she vacated when she left the Fiji Fisheries Division to do her Masters degree in 1984. So it is good to be working with her again.

If anyone is interested in contributing any articles or snippets of news about women in fisheries in the Pacific Islands, or indeed information of broader significance, then please get in touch with Veikila direct (veikilav AT guam.uog.edu), or with the SPC's Fisheries Information Section (cfpinfo AT spc.int), who will pass it on.

Resolution for this week: Try to avoid appearing on the Center for Media and Democracy's Spin of the Day page.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Worldmapper for fisheries

Stop me if you've heard about this before, but I just came across this great little web-page from the University of Sheffield that scales countries on the world map according to various statistics.

I'm an inveterate hoarder of statistics, and realised early on in my career that a picture is worth a thousand numbers - a graphical interface is good and a geographical interface is great. This goes one better than the average GIS and actually distorts the map itself, so you get an even more dramatic view of the importance of AIDS in different regions...

...or private health spending ...

... or whatever.

More interesting to me was the map of the world as scaled according to fish imports.

The USA is big on fish imports, Europe is big, and Japan is relatively huge. I showed this one to a meeting of Pacific Island government representatives this week while I was talking about some of the factors likely to impact the future of Pacific Island fisheries. Import demand, and consumer preference is very significant to fisheries in this region, and this map showed at a glance what a page of dry numbers would struggle to do.

The only problem now is the lack of detailed statistics on our region - the Pacific Islands - but I'm going to try plugging a few things into a local map next week (if you can call a map covering almost the entire Pacific Ocean "local").

I'll be giving full credit to the worldmapper team if I use any of this stuff in future presentations. And thanks to Kim Friedman for showing it to me in the first place.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Launching the blog

"Gonedau" is a Fijian word describing, approximately, the clan within the Fijian village who hold the marine and fishing lore, or the fish-suppliers to the high chief. Another way of putting it is "masterfishermen" or "masterfishers" (your choice of words depends on where you come from, but that's another blog subject).

"Gonedau" is pronounced as though there is an "n" before the "g" and the "d" - something like "gone en dhow", with a nasal initial "g" and the accent on the last syllable.

Gonedau is also the name of an email discussion list about Pacific Island fisheries and other watery matters run by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), and it seemed a good idea to use it for the name of this weblog as well.

SPC publishes a lot of different newsletters, and we hold a lot of workshops and meetings. The trouble with newsletters is that you don't get much feedback - it's a one-way communication. And the trouble with meetings is they are expensive and you can't have them very often, although they are great for feedback.

So we're going to try a bit of blogging for a change. A weblog seems to be a good compromise between conveying information and getting feedback.

Trouble is, it depends on subscribers being used to using the web, and being connected to the internet. So in the beginning we don't expect many of our "main stakeholders" - Pacific Island fish and fisheries people - to be on the subscriber list at the start.

But we hope it will grow, and it may in itself become a reason for using the internet more often.

But now - a few words from our sponsor:

  • The whole point of a blog is that you can comment on it. We welcome comments (of most kinds :-)
  • This is not an official SPC publication. It is the personal view of the SPC's Director of Marine Resources, and those SPC staff who want to take part. Whatever is said on this blog does not necessarily reflect the official view of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.
  • SPC is a regional intergovernmental organisation serving the developing countries and territories of the island Pacific. Our main clients are government departments, but we also work with the private sector, with NGOs, with communities, and with educators and researchers.