By Sangeeta Mangubhai
[This is the fifth in a series of blogs by WCS-Fiji Director Sangeeta Mangubhai assessing the damage to coral reefs caused by Cyclone Winston, a Category 5 storm that hit Fiji on February 20]
Over the last two days we have been diving in the Namena Marine Reserve. There was much debate before we got here whether Nai’a Cruises should venture up to the reserve, as there were reports of large scale damage to the land, coastal villages, and adjacent coral reefs. The marine reserve in particular juts out like a finger from the main island of Vanua Levu and the eye of the storm passed over it.
Namena is special because it is the largest no-take marine reserve in Fiji. Nai’a Cruises has been diving these reefs for decades, promoting its conservation alongside WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and the Coral Reef Alliance. Thousands of divers from all over the world have visited these iconic reefs. Countless photos have captured the reserve’s marine life and numerous inspirational articles have appeared in dive magazines describing Namena’s rich and diverse fish, invertebrate, and coral communities.
Namena is part of the Kubulau District, where WCS has worked for more than a decade supporting local communities on natural resource management. The communities have a plan that outlines how they manage their resources from the mountains all the way down to the reefs. The people of Kubulau have inspired other districts in Bua province to develop their own district ‘ridge to reef’ management plans.
What was evident upon first arriving at the Namena Marine Reserve was that Tropical Cyclone Winston had decimated Namena Island and the small eco-resort there. The island – once lush with an island forest supporting a massive population of seabirds – was now barren, devoid of any green foliage. Trees were bent over, twisted and uprooted by the 185 mph winds. Only a handful of masked boobies (an iconic seabird) sat on bare tree branches, exposed and baking in the sun.
In the course of our visit, we spoke to some of the resort staff trying to clean up the island and salvage any remaining materials they could. Their families are thankfully all safe, but every building has been destroyed, including their dive center and jetty.
Under the water, the reefs in the marine reserve have done better than Namena Island. The cyclone has left a somewhat patchy trail of destruction. Some reefs we dived on were badly damaged – with sea fans, soft corals, and delicate branching corals hit hardest. Some sea fans were ripped out by the roots, while others that were 2-3 meters across have been shredded in half.
There were areas where large volumes of old and new rubble accumulated in between the reef structures and have been shifting around with the currents (bad!). In other areas, the rubble was cleared away and swept to deeper waters (good!), leaving clear bare substrate ready for new coral recruits to colonize. In still other areas, the force of the waves had ripped off massive corals and boulders.
Despite the damage, there was a lot of evidence of the resilience of the Namena Marine Reserve that gave me hope. There were clear areas of reef that seemed largely untouched by the cyclone. Sites popular with tourists like the ‘Two Thumbs Up’ and ‘Kansas’ were for most part intact and continued to flourish all the way from the base of pinnacles to just below the water surface.
It has been almost impossible to predict which reefs would survive the cyclone and which ones would sustain serious damage. There is no clear pattern so far. We would dive on one reef to find it broken apart by waves, then turn a corner and find a reef intact and flourishing. The fish and shark life seemed at this stage to be largely unaffected. We were lucky to swim with white tip and grey reef sharks, large manta rays, and big schools of big-eyed trevally, surgeonfish, and fusiliers.
Well-protected marine reserves like Namena have both a great chance of recovery and will play an important role reseeding adjacent ‘less protected’ or ‘less managed’ reefs. For the community of Kubulau, the Namena Marine Reserve is not only a biodiversity asset they can share with divers that visit Fiji, but also an insurance policy to ensure they always have healthy fisheries.
Previous blogs in Sangeeta Mangubhai’s series exploring the damage to Fiji’s coral reefs following Cyclone Winston: