In recent years, the Pacific region has seen the introduction of numerous initiatives aimed at protecting fish stocks and putting an end to poor fishing practices.
Among these initiatives is the 4FJ (For Fiji) Pledge campaign. Implemented by SeaWeb Asia Pacific, the initiative asks people to take the pledge to not eat, sell, buy or catch fish from the kawakawa and donu (Grouper) species during their breeding season, which runs from June to September annually.
Although the pledge name suggests that it is applicable to Fiji alone, the efforts are aimed at improving fish stocks, both at a local and regional level, by halting its consumption during the most vulnerable time for fish – their breeding season.
Recent reports from SeaWeb Asia Pacific show that the species’ landing numbers, referring to the breeding juvenile fish, have declined by approximately 70% over the last 30 years and that stocks continue to decline.
Regional expert Professor Yvonne Sadovy, who conducted much of the research, explains that there is still a lot of work to do and that everyone can play a role in the region. “The campaign is focused on Fiji but its message is equally relevant throughout the entire Pacific region,” she explains. “For marine species, is very hard to know actual figures. However, we know that the populations of kawakawa and donu are declining in many areas as spawning aggregations are disappearing and catch numbers are declining.” Of the 22 spawning aggregation sites surveyed in 2003, 73% are declining sites with 18% now being dead sites and only 9% remaining healthy sites.
Species such as kawakawa and donu are commonly caught by small coastal communities either for their own consumption or to be sold as a means of income. During their breeding season fish get together in great numbers making this period an ideal time for fisherman to target them.
One of the most alarming problems is that the fish are being caught before they have the chance to let their eggs out into the ocean, therefore causing a decline in population each year. As the fish population declines, fishermen are being forced to supplement their catch with smaller size fish, likely to be juvenile, and pregnant females on the verge of letting their eggs out into the ocean.
“Each year, the income needed by local villagers to meet basic needs for food and daily necessities increases,” explains Scott Radway, SeaWeb Asia Pacific executive director. “Fishing has been a regular practice to provide food and income for hundreds of years, but if we want fish to be around in coastal waters for a long time to come, we will need to employ sustainable fishing practices.” For this reason, getting the message out to coastal communities around the Pacific was at the top of the program priorities. Small coastal communities play a big role in the continuation of the species and it is also them that will be the most adversely affected by a decline in fish populations.
Not consuming fish between June and September each year will give fish populations the opportunity to reproduce and recover so that communities are able to sustain the fish stocks for future generations. “These fish reproduce predictably every year at the same time. So if we don’t eat the fish during that time and let them release literally millions of eggs instead, the fish populations will begin to rebound,” explains Scott Radway. “It will take some time to get people and communities onboard, as behavioral change takes time, and communities in particular face the hardship of meeting short-term needs with long-term sustainability. But it is very clear that it is in everyone’s best interests, even in the short-term,as the fish are getting smaller, harder to find at the market and more expensive,” he said.
The 4FJ campaign itself is a model that can be followed and expanded in different countries around the region, and everyone can be involved by educating other people and simply abstaining from eating grouper during this four-month period.
From restaurants banning the use of grouper in their dishes from June to September,to the local rugby club taking the pledge and promoting the message, the fight is indeed one that will need the momentum of numerous individuals and will ultimately benefit all. For more information visit www.4fj.org.fj.
By Dawn Gibson