Community-Based Management of Marine Protected Areas in the Fishing Villages of Kubulau District, Vanua Levu, Fiji

Greenpeace is an International NGO that works with costal communities to protect their marine ecosystem

This case study analyzes the establishment and adaptive co-management of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the fishing villages of Kubulau District, Vanua Levu. Following incentives of food security, the Fijian government recognized the need to increase protection of vulnerable coral reef ecosystems to ensure long term resilience for its citizens. Collaborating alongside village chiefs, clan leaders, internal government sectors, as well as external environmental and humanitarian NGOs, MPA networks were established inside Kubulau after years of planning and negotiations, which resulted in a customary marine tenure system outlining well-defined access rights. Existing literature has demonstrated success by MPAs to increase fish biodiversity and abundance. however, conflicts have also risen which may lead to negative outcomes in the near future. Overall, this case study highlights the importance of continuous monitoring and development of proactive management in MPA projects, as long term success and stability have yet to be confirmed.

Figure 1: Map of Fiji (red arrow is the Kubulau district in Vanua Levu)

The country of Fiji is an archipelago in the South Pacific made up of 320 islands; approximately 100 islands are inhabited by people[1]. The two largest islands are Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, with its capital city of Suva is located in Viti Levu[1]. Having a population of over 775,000, over 60% of Fijians live in rural areas and are economically dependent on fishing and horticulture for subsistence[1]. Coral reef ecosystems make up over 5000 kilometres of coastline in this island nation, supporting the livelihoods of various endemic marine species[1]. Due to this, the small island nation supports marine conservation initiatives whether through internal community organizations, government policies, as well as non-government organizations (NGOs). Furthermore, the Fijian government is committed to marine stewardship by pledging to protect at least 30% of its inshore waters by 2020[2]. This allows for complex partnerships to be formed in order to sustain both the livelihoods of citizens as well as marine resources. Since Fiji has a natural resource-dependent economy, there is an increasing pressure on coastal communities as global warming may cause devastating impacts on vulnerable coastal ecosystems. As coral reefs are sensitive in responding to changes in ocean temperatures, Fiji must monitor and manage its marine resources intensively in order to ensure long term stability and resilience.

For more than 2000 years, indigenous nations managed the islands of Fiji according to their traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)[3]. TEK is commonly understood to be a body of knowledge that is passed down through generations about the relationship between humans, and the ways people use and manage their natural resources, with other living beings such as plants and animals, and their environmental conditions. For many centuries, indigenous TEK was the key factor driving decision making processes regarding the management and conservation of Fiji’s diverse ecosystems[4]. However, after Fiji became a British colony in 1874[3], colonization changed the management systems throughout the Pacific, including Fiji, and the introduction of a market economy resulted in the devaluation of traditional authorities such as clan leaders/chiefs. Dramatic cultural shifts in many regions of the country contributed to the suppression of TEK, a management system that was used for millennia[4]. Yet, it was only since the 1970s that ecologists recognized indigenous TEK as an important tool for natural resources management in Fiji. In the 1980s, there was a growing interest in forming management strategies through collaborations with local indigenous communities[4]. The incorporation of indigenous strategies for exploiting and managing their natural resources later became known as community-based management (CBM), and using the TEK of local communities in Fiji and applying it to reef tenures, the CBM strategy was more likely to reinforce the conservation goals of the newly established marine protected areas (MPAs)[4]. Therefore, through the most common form of CBM in Fiji, the customary marine tenure system, it ensures coastal communities to use management styles based on their TEK to regulate their use of marine products to ensure that products from the reef will be plentiful for the following generations[4]. The transition from TEK to western colonial views, then to a CBM system that combines the indigenous values and strategies to manage and properly harvest their natural resources in MPAs was essential to minimize conflicts between the different cultural perspectives.

Government Ensign of Fiji

Today, the national government of Fiji is a constitutional democracy[5] that establishes legislative and policy regimes for all major natural resource sectors[1]. In section 40 of the Fiji constitution, it states that “every person has the right to a clean and healthy environment, which includes the right to have the natural world protected for the benefit of present and future generations through legislative and other measures”[5]. The constitution and environmental laws also state that Fijian citizens who are concerned by any development that may potentially have a consequential impact on the environment have the right to partake in the decision-making process to improve the protection of their environment, oceans, and natural resources[5]. This is extremely important since it gives Fijians power to vocalize their issues directly and exercise their rights to engage within the governance and protection of vital resources. Ergo, Fiji’s Environmental Management Act of 2005 is important in reinforcing good decision-making processes by requiring environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for any major future developments. EIA reports in Fiji are essential to aid decision-makers in meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs within their carrying capacity[5]. Furthermore, with public EIA consultation meetings held in towns when necessary, final decisions of projects are based on the assessment of potential consequences as well as the best interest of communities. These meetings address the concerns of the citizens and attempt to balance the environmental, social, and cultural impacts against the benefits of the development[5]. Thus, it is clear that individuals in Fiji hold certain decision-making powers and influence regarding the management of their natural resources.

There are many challenges in the management of natural resources in a centralized government. In Fiji, this is especially true since traditional and hierarchical community-level governance systems have been in place for many centuries[6]. Firstly, there is significant fragmentation of environmental policies across different government departments[1]. This indicates a lack of coordination between different sectors to reach conservation objectives and may result in conflicting interests. Secondly, Fiji’s Forest Act and Fisheries Act highlight resource extraction licensing as a key focus[1], which can be outdated and does not contribute to current conservation goals. Lastly, spatial disconnection often prevents centralized governments to understand local community concerns[1]. Through CBM at the community level, a form of devolution, small communities like fishing villages in Kubulau are able to exercise their customary rights and manage their lands in their own interests, which often align with conservation for long-term ecosystem stability in order to sustain villagers’ livelihoods. As a result, local and transnational non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are seen to be increasingly active in policy developments[1]. Conservation and humanitarian-based NGOs are involved through working in partnership with the Fijian government; meanwhile, other NGOs work directly with village members. Overall, the government of Fiji should strive to increase collaboration between internal sectors in order to generate more comprehensive and proactive natural resource management strategies and minimize hardships[1].

Land and coastal waters in Fiji are managed through three tenure systems, customary, freehold, and state-owned (crown)[7]. 85% of Fiji’s land is owned by customary and traditional landowners who claim resource sovereignty[1]. About 10% of the land is freehold land, held under individual titles to allow the purchase, transfers, and leases by private landowners[7]. The remaining 5% of the land is reserved to be crown land, which is state-owned and administered by the Department of Lands[7]. As the majority of land in Fiji remains under customary ownership, economic developments in these areas cannot proceed until permission is granted through negotiations with community members, as well as lease agreements from the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB)[7].

Fiji does not have management strategies for coastal and inshore waters at the national level[1]. Traditional fishing grounds that cover inshore areas to edges of fringing reefs, or Qoliqolis, are legally recognized to be state-owned. Although, the 1942 Fisheries Act explicitly recognizes traditional fishing by customary landowners, who resided in these territories for centuries[6]. Historically, each indigenous nation developed its own tenure system by appointing a chief, clan, or family to enforce regulations and control resource degradation and exploitation[4]. Currently, in the Kubulau district, reef tenure takes the form of coastal tenures and are legally controlled by individual villages[4], who are capable of self-organization and make communal decisions. It is important to recognize that recognition of customary rights leads to community-based natural resources management (CBNRM)[8], and it is often the first step in reaching conservation goals.

Affected Stakeholder Key Role
Villagers who fish for subsistence Fish accordingly to local community regulations and guidelines regarding quantity, size, and species
Villagers who fish commercially Fish following commercial fishing guidelines, uses a middleman to transport catch, can overfishing and exploit reef ecosystems
Villager that exports fish Middleman who lives in Navatu village and sells fish to markets in Savusavu
Community Fish Wardens Villagers who patrol the qoliqolis, ensures that fishermen are following guidelines, monitoring for poaching activities
Poachers Participate in illegal fishing on protected fishing grounds, typically active at night to avoid surveillance
Chiefs of Kubulau Individual village or clan chiefs that hold authority, typically an elderly, well-respected member that is able to generate good compliance among villagers
Kubulau Resource Management Committee (KRMC) Comprised of representatives from each village and meet to create integrated and proactive management strategies, decide on the boundaries of MPA networks, set regulations and meets consistently to adjust and revise management plans. KRMC’s final management decisions require authorization from council chiefs in each region (Jupiter et al, 2010).
Native Lands and Fisheries Commission made up of local landowning clan members (mataqali), has control over fishing rights
Interested Stakeholder Key Role
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) International NGO that collaborates with village communities in Kubulau in the establishment of MPA to achieve conservation objectives
National Government of Fiji Committed to marine stewardship to ensure long term stability of its marine ecosystems for its citizens
District Fisheries Committee (Bose Vanua) Established the Kubulau Resource Management Committee (KRMC) to give the Kubulau district more power in developing their own marine resource management objectives
Department of Fisheries Issues fishing licenses that are renewable annually, which does not include subsistence vessel fishing
Tourism developers who want to invest in property Concerned with the degradation and biodiversity loss of coastal ecosystems due to a decreased attraction for tourists
World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Wetlands International (Oceania), the Coral Reef Alliance (CRA) International NGOs that contribute to the establishment of MPAs through conducting biological and socioeconomic research in this region, strong incentive to increase reef systems resilience as well as benefits to village communities
No-take MPAs have demonstrated success in term of increasing species biomass and abundance

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are bodies of water, usually in proximity to shorelines, that are managed in order to conserve marine resources, increase abundance and biomass of targeted species, as well as equal distribution of socio-economic benefits across local communities[6]. The relative outcomes of MPAs are typically measured by fish surveys of targeted species, both in abundance and biomass[6]. Ultimately, MPAs must consider the effects of its establishment on local communities by finding a balance between conservation and economic outcomes, which may be difficult to navigate due to opposing objectives. In addition, it is extremely crucial to recognize customary resource access rights of indigenous groups when determining rules and regulations. In Fiji, the establishment of MPAs is an ongoing long term process, involving numerous stakeholders, following various incentives that require immediate action. In the Kubulau District of Bua Province, the district has a population of approximately 1000 between ten villages, seven of which are located on the coast[6]. The total area of Kubulau’s qoliqoli is 260 kilometres squared[6]. As stated previously, these small communities depend on the state of the coral reef ecosystems for their livelihoods. However, there has been major environmental degradation along the coastal strip, as well as coastal fishery collapses from historical and recent overfishing[6][9]. Food security is an increasing concern as catch numbers have been decreasing along the shoreline[6]. Coral bleaching, a process that causes coral death followed by ocean acidification, is an ongoing threat that will dominate many reef systems in this region in the future[9]. Out of the 400 qoliqolis in Kubulau, at least 70 are considered over-exploited while 250 are utilized at capacity[6]. This area is particularly of concern to international conservation scientists as coral reefs are a fragile and sensitive ecosystem with lower resilience compared to terrestrial ecosystems. In Kubulau, endemic species are ubiquitous with an average of seven endemics seen per dive[9]. As a result, The Fijian government declared a commitment to protected 30% of its inshore waters at the Barbados Plan of Action conference in 2005[9].

In 2003, the idea of protecting marine resources using MPAs was recognized in Kubulau, but local communities did not have all the resources necessary to complete their implementation[10]. As a result, the Kubulau communities asked an NGO, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) for support in managing their natural resources, and from 2004 to 2005, the concept of MPA networks was discussed during a chain of meetings between the WCS and multiple indigenous communities in Kubulau[10]. Between the ongoing meetings of the NGO and village members, by 2005, WCS assessed the abundance of fish and invertebrates and coral cover that the Kubulau district had and initiated resource-use mapping surveys with residents of the 10 villages[10]. The surveys were used to apprise the villagers of a newly proposed MPA network design that intended to maximize fisheries benefits while equally distributing costs amongst all communities[10]. Additionally, the socioeconomic and biological research done by multiple NGOs, including World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Wetlands International (Oceania), the Coral Reef Alliance (CRA), and the Kubulau Resource Management Committee (KRMC) was used to influence the initial design of MPA networks in Kubulau[8]. Subsequently, community meetings were held to draft management plans for the Kubulau qoliqoli with the main objective of ensuring long term food security for all villages in the district[10]. Lastly, in October 2005, the KRMC composed of representatives from each village was created as a way to approach integrated management objectives[8][10], and the broad decisions over regulations were made by the committees, whilst village chiefs controlled gear restrictions, MPA temporary closures, and local regulations[8]. Thus, after two years, Kubulau’s MPAs became established, along with a trustworthy committee that continues to make changes to improve the living conditions of coastal villages.

After the implementation of MPAs in the Kubulau district, research and data showed that successful MPAs increased fish abundance within the next couple of years. Even though MPA strategy to manage and conserve Kubulau’s resources was successful, the Kubulau district wanted to modify the MPA network design to improve the overall effectiveness and incorporate new information[10]. For this reason, Kubulau established an adaptive co-management plan that recognized that management objectives and strategies would change over time because they have to accommodate to new threats and challenges[10]. However, this is a complex ongoing process. In 2011, there were two factors that encouraged the revision of the Kubualu EBM of the MPAs: the desire to improve management effectiveness of the existing MPAs and to improve resilience to climate change[10]. In July 2011, a three-day adaptive management workshop was held in Kubulau with village representatives, high chiefs, KRMC, and other government stakeholders attending[10]. The objective of the workshop was to develop community awareness of the effects of climate change on local resources (eg. food, livelihood impacts), to explain data, results, and key messages from biological monitoring experiments of the MPAs, resolve conflict over current management strategies, and lastly, to talk about options for adaptive management of the MPAs network to successfully implement the two new factors[10]. After the MPA plan was revised to cater to the new factors the district needed to implement, the health of the reef and the abundance of resources increased[10]. Therefore, working together as a district is more efficient in improving MPAs as it allows the decision-makers to identify the attributes of successful MPAs in the network and adjust the design of other networks to follow[10]. Working together as a district, adaptive management by individual villages would benefit communities and their environment since it is open to change and allows inputs from multiple stakeholders, including KRMC, NGO partners, and indigenous groups. That is why after the first version of the Kubulau EBM of MPAs, the new plan was implemented to review and modify the plan as necessary every five years to increase resiliency against possible threats, such as climate change[10].

Current MPA Network In the Kubulau District

The resulting MPA network in the Kubulau District comprises of 17 community-managed MPAs, with management responsibilities carried by specific community groups, as well as three district-wide MPAs, totally approximately 80 kilometres squared[6]. These MPAs include a diverse range of habitats, including “reef flats, seagrass beds, coastal fringing reefs, soft bottom lagoons, path reefs, offshore barrier reefs and deep channels”[9]. The outer reefs in Kubulau contain at least 73% of the species known within Fiji Island, which accounts for 16% of the global marine diversity[6]. The next section outlines two MPAs in the Kubulau district, Namena Marine Reserve and Namuri Marine Protected Area and discusses their success or failure based on outcomes.

Namena Marine Reserve is the largest marine protected area in Fiji, covering a total area of 60 kilometres squared. It was established in 1997 due to community incentives for regulations to be implemented for international tourism, particularly preserving species richness and diversity for diving purposes[6]. It was originally established as a no-take MPA, this indicates closure of the majority of fishing grounds with limited areas set aside for villagers to use. One of two clans in the nearby Navatu village is able to exercise their customary fishing rights in this reserve. Longitudinal studies demonstrate that total fish biomass inside Namena and the Nakaki community is greater than any other control area in Kubulau[6]. Its success can be attributed to many factors, such as long-distance from villagers, heavy enforcement efforts, natural geomorphic features that promote ecosystem recovery and development, as well as long term protection[6].

Conflicts in the Namena Marine Reserve

Conflicts rose quickly in the reserve due to the closure of fishing grounds without appropriate compensation[8]. In a 2009 survey, it discovered that only 20% of Navatu head of households agree with both Bose Vanua and KRMC decisions[8]. Villagers living close to the reserve were not afraid to challenge management decisions, since poaching, fishing illegally in the area, became an imminent issue. To resolve this, the Department of Fisheries began issuing fishing licenses as a strategy to give authorities more legal power since licenses must be reviewed annually. Although, since subsistence vessel fishing is not limited by this license, extensive monitoring must be enforced[8].

The Namuri Marine Protected Area is a smaller MPA that is close in proximity to the fishing villages nearby. Studies demonstrate that by 2007, fish inside the Namuri Marine Reserve are significantly larger than outside fish[6], this can indicate a longer lifespan and/or increased food source. Just one year later, survey data shows increased total reef fish biomass and abundance on fore [do you mean, four?] reefs inside in the MPA, with the highest mean fish abundance recorded ever[6]. This indicates that MPAs can be successful even in close proximity to villagers, as long as good compliance is in place.

Issues in the Namuri Marine Protected Area

By 2009, a survey revealed that this pattern was reversed since survey results have been made public, this meant fishers recognized significantly high biomass inside the Namuri MPA and chose to fish here instead. In this case, sharing survey data with the villagers may have reversed the effects of the Namuri MPA and may continue to do so in the future[6]. Since management rules are based on traditional authority, village fishermen are generally compliant with occasional poaching, who strategically fish at night to stay out of public sight[6]. To resolve this issue, one possible solution is to open some areas inside the MPA for fishing in exchange for increased protection of other sites[9]. Subsequently, it is questioned whether survey data should be made available to the public in order to prevent poaching.

Existing literature demonstrates successful MPAs increase abundance and biomass of targeted fish species[6][9]. Specifically, more positive and lasting effects observed in permanent no-take areas compared to partial protection or periodically harvested areas[6][9]. Since reef ecosystems are diverse and unique, management strategies must adapt to existing habitat composition. Currently, key factors that determine MPAs success or failure include the size of the area covered, degree of protection (no-take, permanent, periodic opening, partial), villagers’ compliance, visibility, proximity, as well as disturbances)[6]. Comparing the Namena Marine Reserve and Namuri Marine Protected Area, it appears that much of Namena’s success is attributed to its location. Since it is not easily accessible, potential poachers must consider the opportunity costs of entrance if the catch volume is low and especially if there is a high level of surveillance. However, Namena can be more challenging to manage due to its large size. Additionally, since it is a district-wide MPA that does not fall under the control of a single village or clan, clear authority is required to maintain protection. Generally, MPAs are more likely to be successful when they incorporate traditional beliefs regarding reef tenures and only allow local villagers access[4]. This prevents outsiders without adequate knowledge from exploiting these ecosystems. The conflicts observed in the Namena Marine Reserve reflects that management measures are more likely to be accepted if they reflect local knowledge, traditions, and practice[8]. Currently, the only mechanism to prohibit subsistence and commercial fishing is the gazetting of a restricted area by the Minister for Fisheries, which will result in extinguishing all customary marine resource rights[8]. Although this likely leads to the best conservation outcomes, it would be detrimental to nearby village communities. Future MPA projects must involve management agendas that uphold the customary rights of village communities. By inspiring village members to actively participate in the planning process, there is a greater possibility of building a close and trustworthy relationship which is likely to increase the success rates of MPAs.

Based on the analysis of current MPAs in the Kubulau District of Fiji, there are several recommendations that can be made to maximize positive outcomes from MPA projects.

Firstly, MPAs should be placed in relatively more resilient locations with natural features that foster recovery from disturbances[8]. Doing so, there is a higher chance of recovery from the current state of exploitation or from future poaching activities.

Secondly, visibility is a key factor to consider in terms of management. High visibility can indicate better monitoring opportunities, both by wardens and locals[8]. MPAs placed behind mangrove forests can impede view and lead to illegal activities such as poaching[8].

Lastly, recognizing MPAs as complex projects that require ongoing management to adapt to new challenges, such as poaching, coral bleaching, and other unpredictable effects of climate change. Consistent monitoring and adjustments to management are required for the development of proactive strategies in the future in order to achieve and ensure long term livelihood of Kubulau’s marine resource-dependent communities.

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  2. Tui, T., Kolikata, P., Dulunaqio, S., Jupiter, S. (2009). Integrating ecosystem-based management principles into the Fijian context: A case study from Kubulau, Vanua Levu. Retrieved from:   
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  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 Adams, V. M., Mills, M., Jupiter, S. D., Pressey, R. L. (2011). Improving social acceptability of marine protected area networks: a method for estimating opportunity costs to multiple gear types in both fished and currently unfished areas. Biological Conservation, 144(1), 350-361. Retrieved from:
  10. 10.00 10.01 10.02 10.03 10.04 10.05 10.06 10.07 10.08 10.09 10.10 10.11 10.12 10.13 Jupiter, S. D., Weeks, R. (2013). Adaptive comanagement of a marine protected area network in Fiji. Conservation Biology, 27(6). Retrieved from:
Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Lynne Kim & Daniella Zhang. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

Post Image Credit:Brocken Inaglory, Green turtle swimming over coral reefs in Kona, CC BY-SA 3.0