By Dr. Stacy Jupiter
Lau – Land of Islands Lost
This is the first of several blogs documenting an 8-day, marine expedition to Fiji.
Tomorrow we board our research vessel to embark on our journey to the remote reaches of Fiji’s oceans. We are headed to Lau Province, where communities hold their reefs sacred and mythical islands really can vanish like in the television series Lost. Through this expedition, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Pacific Blue Foundation, Wetlands International-Oceania, and the Waitt Institute are partnering to uncover the stories of the reefs and people of Totoya Island in the Yasayasamoala group.
Lau Province is made up of over a hundred islands and atolls scattered across a 188 square mile expanse of deep water bridging Fiji and Tonga. The Yasayasamoala group encompasses Totoya, Moala, Vanuavatu and Matuku islands, plus the atoll Navatu, which are all the summits of extinct oceanic volcanoes that rise from depths of over 6500 feet. There may have previously been more. Oral histories collected by University of the South Pacific linguist Paul Geraghty describe a mythical island, Burotukula, which geologists believe may have slipped off the flanks of Matuku over 1000 years ago.
Totoya is a triangular shaped island excavated by a drowned caldera. Although only 125 miles from Fiji’s capital in Suva, the geographic distance belies its remoteness. The nearest airstrip is on Moala Island, although the once-weekly flights will not land on its grassy surface if conditions are wet. From Moala, Totoya residents must make a 25 mile ocean crossing at their peril, with large swell and high currents regular features of the deep passages between these islands.
There are four villages on Totoya occupying 129 households. Most residents are farmers or fishers, with few other opportunities to earn a living. Fish catch surveys conducted across southern Lau by researchers from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom suggest that by the mid-1990s, even a modest level of local fishing had strong impacts on coral reef fish communities. Since that time, fishing pressure has increased as the urban markets of Suva lured many to sell their precious stocks.
Traditionally, Fijians and other Pacific Islanders used customary governance systems to manage their marine resources. When people noticed declines in their resources, the chiefs would impose a ban (call tabu in Fijian) on fishing. On Totoya, the chiefs declared a portion of their sacred reef tabu for several decades. However, prompted by increasing commercial value of fish stocks, the previous high chief of Totoya lifted the ban to boost the economy of his island. The current high chief of Totoya, Roko Sau (Roko Josefa Cinavilakeba), is joining us on the expedition to encourage his people to revive their traditions. He will lead the chiefs of the four villages to once again declare their sacred reef tabu for World Ocean’s Day on June 8 to ensure that there are fish for future generations.
We invite you to follow along our adventures as we aim to locate new species, revitalize cultural practice, and explore the unknown. We are very excited at the prospect of what the coming week will bring.