Every year on February 2, the world celebrates World Wetlands Day to raise awareness about the role of wetlands for people and the planet.
This year, Fiji commemorated the day with a clean-up campaign on a wetland site on Denarau Island in Nadi, on the western side of the main island of Viti Levu.
The clean-up centered on the removal of algae from the lake and other litter including plastic bags and bottles illegally dumped by residents in the area, in line with this year’s theme “Wetlands and Water.” The theme highlights the importance of wetlands as a source of freshwater and encourages action to restore them and stop their loss.
Fijian Minister for Waterways and Environment, Dr. Mahendra Reddy said wetlands provide very useful environmental, social, and economic services.
“Wetlands offer a significant range of benefits for the industry and trade. For example, they are home to nurseries for fish and other freshwater and marine life and form a critical feature in supporting Fiji’s commercial and recreational fishing businesses,” he said.
International protection efforts
The signing of the Convention on Wetlands took place in 1971 in the small Iranian town of Ramsar. Since then, the Convention on Wetlands has been known as the Ramsar Convention.
Fiji became the 152nd party to the convention on August 11, 2006. At present, Fiji has two sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance (aka Ramsar Sites).
The first site is the Upper Navua Conservation Area (UNCA) leased by Rivers Fiji, a company that manages the site for tourism and freshwater rafting experiences.
“Comprising an area of 615 hectares, the site contains a spectacular count of Fiji’s native and endemic species. It is also a source of economic nourishment to the nearby village communities with a wide range of food products, building materials, medicine source, and ornamental materials, not to mention the river has been used as a means of transportation for many years,” Dr. Reddy said.
The Upper Navua River cuts a narrow gorge, some 75 meters deep and five to 25 meters wide and hosts important fauna and flora, including an abundance of the disappearing endemic sago palm Metroxylon vitiense. The waters of the site contain breeding populations of at least two endemic freshwater fish species (Redigibius leveri and Schismatogobius chrysonotus), and in the forests surrounding the gorge there are 17 endemic species of birds.
Due to its relative inaccessibility, the site is in a nearly undisturbed state, but increased logging in the area poses a potential threat, according to information available online on Fiji’s Ramsar sites.
The land is owned by traditional families and managed on their behalf by the I Taukei Native Land Trust Board and is presently leased to Rivers Fiji Ltd, an ecotourism and rafting venture which is designing training and education programmes, among other efforts, in order to develop sustainable ecotourism further.
The second site is located on the north coast of Fiji’s second-largest island of Vanua Levu and forms a part of the Great Sea Reef (GSR) or Cakau-Levu, which encompasses over 200km from Udu Point at the northern tip of Vanua Levu across the Bligh waters to the barrier reef system of the Yasawas.
“The GSR is the longest and most diverse reef system in Fiji and is the third-longest barrier reef in the world," said Dr. Reddy. "It supports key sources of food, security, income and employment for household, communities, resource owners and those in the tourism sectors."
Identified as one of the five marine priority conservation areas in Fiji, the GSR sustains an exceptional wealth of marine biodiversity and endemic species, and supports the food security and livelihoods of local communities, which collectively retain custodial ownership over the fishing grounds.
The Cakau Levu is the biodiverse “heart” of the GSR, and so is globally significant. The site contains a wide range of coral reef formations associated seagrass beds and mangroves that support foraging and nesting grounds for globally threatened turtle species, including hawksbill, green turtles (which are present in significant numbers), leatherbacks and loggerheads. It also supports at least eight globally threatened or near-threatened finfish species, such as giant grouper, humphead wrasse and humphead parrotfish.
The extensive seagrass beds together with coastal mangroves and mangrove islands are critical habitats and nursery grounds for the commercially important finfish, molluscs, crustaceans and sea cucumbers that support the national economy as well as the local communities.
Major threats to the site include chemical and wastewater run-off from a neighbouring settlement, sugarcane farms and a mill.
A call for local action
Dr. Reddy urged Fijians to re-consider the amount of waste and litter being dumped into rivers, lakes, streams and oceans, as it has contributed to the rapidly declining rate of wetlands -- reducing their ecological and economic benefits.
“The Secretariat to the Ramsar Convention stated that nearly 90% of the world’s wetlands were lost since the 1700s and the remaining are rapidly disappearing -- three times faster than forests," he said, noting that 25% of all wetland species, including one out of three freshwater species, face extinction.
To find common solutions and maximise Fiji’s limited resources, Dr. Reddy advised people to implement the 3Rs approach to waste.
“We should reduce the level of waste we produce, we should reuse items rather than throwing them away, and we should recycle items that can be recycled," he said. "The 3Rs can make a big difference and can help us achieve a Clean Fiji and at the same time keep our wetlands waste-free."
Banner image: Upper Navua Ramsar Site, Fiji / Credit: Ramsar.org