Fiji fishing tabu: traditional strength behind modern conservation

Posted: July 3, 2012 in Culture and traditions, Fiji, Pacific Ways
Tags: , , ,

Radio Australia last week reported that Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu, had placed a tabu on another section of its coast in response to declining fish stocks.

Speaking to Radio Australia, Chief Tui Cakau Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu said overfishing and illegal fishing meant there was not enough fish to meet the demands of the island’s hospitality industry – about 1,000kg of fish per week.

According to the ABC, the tabu bans commercial fishing, and places certain areas off limits – even to subsistence fishermen – for six months.

Reportedly, “a similar tabu is already in place around the island’s south western tip”.

Traditional tabu areas hold an important role in fishing conservation in Fiji. Invoking a tabu remains the dominant local form of marine conservation, for “small, inshore, or coastal tabu areas overseen by individual villages and opened periodically at the discretion of the village chief”. In many villages, tabus have become the basis of more modern approaches to conservation, including establishing marine protected areas.

For example, the Locally-Managed Marine Area Network (LMAA) seeks to use deeply embedded understandings of the importance of tabu to ensure the success of its modern approach to marine conservation.

“This type of traditional temporary tabu typically results in increased harvest at the end of the closed period. However, to maximize the beneficial effects of a tabu area, recent studies indicate that longer or permanently closed areas are best,” the LMAA says on its website.

“Today, tabu areas in Fiji are being set up with the joint agreement of the chiefs and the people, unlike in the old days when a chief dies. The tabu imposed after the death of a chief now serves to reinforce the modern tabu area.

“The tabu applies only to a portion of the fishing ground (about 10-20%), leaving the rest for community members to harvest for their consumption or livelihood, with the objective of enhancing the productivity of the open harvest areas.

“The creation of marine protected areas (MPAs) or reserves – modern versions of the tabu system – has followed the traditional rites, with formal declaration and ceremonies performed, traditional marking of the closed area, and notification of neighbouring users.”

According to this website, Fiji now has about 177 MPAs, most managed by local villages.

Similarly, the newly placed tabu on Vanua Levu’s eastern coast is just one part of a broader strategy to tackle the problem of declining fish stocks.

Tui Cakau told Radio Australia the landowners would also meet with fisheries officials to work out how to police the coast more effectively.

As he said, the act of invoking a tabu defined his people’s stance on the issue very clearly:

“It’s just a matter of us putting things in black and white,” he said.

Fiji’s Fisheries Department recognises the initiative can work because it has public support, given it is community-driven. It also helps Fisheries deal with a problem they don’t have enough resources to tackle alone.

The tabu is an example of how Pacific cultural traditions adapt to ensure people can maintain harmonious relationships with the world. Initiatives based on traditional customs work because they are part of a people’s inherited cultural worldview. People are more likely to support and be engaged with an initiative if it respects their understandings of their integrated relationship with the environment and all living things.

What are your thoughts about using the tabu for modern conservation?

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