Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Tagging turtles for a wedding - Fiji Times Online

Monday, March 03, 2008
On the dusky evening of Thursday December 27, to the whooshing sounds of many pairs of legs wading through knee high waters, two tagged 75kg green turtles were released into the incoming tide of the mangrove lined bay of Ligaulevu Village on Mali. 
With cries of 'go turtle go','la'o vonu la'o' and 'moce' we watched the pair flap their flippers free as the hands pulling them along let go. My gaze followed their underwater path through the ripples on the water surface, and once, their pointed heads bobbed out of the water, for a moment, to take in air before going forward.

The tag and release of turtles was a wedding day wish for Leone Vokai of Ligaulevu Village on Mali and Sally Bailey of Saint Brides Major of Wales. This was a show of the continuing passion the couple have to the protection of biodiversity, and turtles in particular. In my mind, it is a mark of young people taking action in what they believe in.
"Young Fijians are travelling and learning new things, gaining more appreciation of the beautiful environment of our country. Some like Leone are taking action personally and encouraging his community to do the same," observed a cousin of Leone's.

To an uncle, a sister's son's wish, especially for his wedding is a mission to be accomplished. Forty-two-year-old Ifereimi Daumaka, Leone's uncle, went turtle fishing for a day and caught the turtles on the wide reef flats of Cakaulevu, opposite Mali Island.

It is suspected that this time is the first time in the history of Mali Island, that turtles caught did not end up in the pot.

"The turtles were caught the old fashioned way," remarked a proud Ifereimi.
"The fishermen cruise the reef tops looking. Once spotted, the boat follows the turtle until it is alongside it, then the fishermen dive in to catch the turtle," Ifereimi added. As I watched the wedding preparation unfold, it became obvious to me that this was also a celebration of the connectivity between the people of Mali and their biological resource. The wedding garments came from the bark of the masi tree, of which a plantation grew nearby; the salusalus, from the inner bark of the vau tree, and the many aromatic flowers, fruits and leaves that abound on the island; the mirror like sheen on the bare shoulders of members of the wedding party was scented coconut oil; the layers of finely woven mats in the wedding house and in the church were from kuta (a wetland grass) and voivoi (pandanus leaves), large plantations of which surround the village. The black design on the mats were of pandanus leaves soaked and cooked in black mud with branches of a local swamp plant.

The wedding feast, a variety of fish and shellfish (some of which came all the way from Wales, pickled) was a display of the bounty of the sea around Mali. I did wonder how many of the big fishes on the table grew in the safety of the marine protected areas within the Mali qoliqoli. It is over three years since the elders of the iqoliqoli declared nine sections of the iqoliqoli as marine protected areas, where no fishing is allowed. I am certain that the rules of use of the iqoliqoli set in place in 2004 had something to do with the sizes and volume of sea food enjoyed during the wedding celebration.

The people of the district or tikina Mali along with people of tikina Dreketi, Macuata and Sasa share a common traditional fishing ground. This stretches from Nakalou Village by the mouth of the Dreketi River to Korotubu Village near Labasa and over the waters to Kia and Mali islands.

On neighbouring Kia Island, a female turtle came ashore in 2006 to nest on the beach in front of the school in Ligau, after a long time with no nesting turtles recorded for this beach. In 2007 a second female came onto a beach on the other side of the island.

In June 2007, Ligau villagers committed Ligau beach as a monitoring site. Additionally, Mokanivonu, a sunken patch reef near Nakalou Village is a resting and sleeping area for turtles, according to the villagers.

I saw what I think was disbelief on the faces of some of the villagers when they realised the landed turtles under the mango trees were to be let go back into the sea.

This is understandable, with the time it took to catch and the cost of the fuel used in catching the turtles.
This act and the questions arising in the minds of the Mali islanders, provided the opportunity to talk about the fragility of the lifecycle of the turtle.

A number of Ligaulevu villagers are now wiser to the choice made by the couple to tag and release the turtles.
The number on the tag is given to the Ministry of Fisheries where a database of all turtles tagged in Fiji is kept.
Our Ministry of Fisheries work with SPREP ( South Pacific Environment Program) on tagging turtles. Fishermen catching tagged turtles are asked to inform the Ministry of the tag number and where the turtle was seen or caught. Today, very little is known about the movement of 'Fiji turtles' in Fiji waters. 

Collecting information on the sightings of turtles will tell us how far turtles travel around Fiji and even in and around the Pacific. We know from satellite tagging and titanium flipper tagging, that turtles from Samoa, the Cook Islands and even Hawaii travel to Fiji to feed in extensive seagrass fields within inshore waters. The seagrass beds in the fishing areas along the Macuata coast in particular is a popular feeding ground for green and hawksbill turtles.
The endangered Pacific Leatherback turtle, known to nest only in the 'Coral Triangle' countries of PNG, Solomon Islands and in West Papua, was reported to nest on Vatulele, a couple of years ago. In the past 2 years, there have been sightings of this giant of a turtle in Kubulau.

These magnificent turtles are moving into Fiji may be because they have strayed from their normal route.
I would like to think they are moving to Fiji waters because the conditions here are getting more conducive to their cycle of life.

The 'Coral Triangle' is the world's epicenter of marine life abundance and diversity.

The richness of coral, fish and other species is so high that the region is sometimes referred to as the "Amazon of the Seas".

This triangular shaped region covers all or part of the seas of six countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste.

Fiji is part of 'WWFs Coral Triangle Initiative' which also includes the neighboring countries of Australia and Fiji, which contains rich coral biodiversity as well, but with somewhat lower numbers known to science.

Sally is a Marine Program manager with the WWF office in the United Kingdom and Leone is a diver. With both their lives rotating around the ocean they believe in protecting the marine life.

Kesaia Tabunakawai, WWF Fiji country manager was a guest at the wedding

Tagging turtles for a wedding - Fiji Times Online

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