FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Resilience and Adaptation – Unlocking the Secrets of Fiji’s Coral Reefs

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Resilience and Adaptation – Unlocking the Secrets of Fiji’s Coral Reefs

FHTA, 01 June 2023 – This week, the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) hosted a webinar for its members focusing on coral bleaching in Fiji waters.

Helen Sykes of Marine Ecology Consulting Fiji provided a report on the state of Fiji’s coral reefs, highlighting both the dire situation we must be on the lookout for and some surprisingly positive aspects that we thought would be great to share.

Coral reefs play a crucial role in supporting Fiji’s tourism industry, attracting tourists from around the world with their diverse marine life and picturesque landscapes. But it was already playing this superfood, medicine, transport and livelihood base for thousands of people who rely on the ocean in Fiji and around the Pacific.

As part of the Pacific Community Evidence Brief of April 2021, it was noted that “Pacific communities, based on historical experience, use traditional and Indigenous knowledge to sustainably manage food from the land and ocean. Centred on family and kinship ties, food and Pacific cultures are inseparable. These ties and traditional food systems help Pacific Island communities cope with shocks, including Covid-19.

The deep traditional knowledge of Indigenous people and local communities provides globally applicable lessons on living sustainably with the land and sea and custodianship over natural resources.

As a tourism support organisation, we understand how the oceans are key to our survival but also how sustainable the tourism industry can and must be.

Go through the social media of a recent visitor to Fiji and chances are you’ll find snaps from a dive in and around our gorgeous coral reefs. The health and resilience of these reefs are vital for sustaining the tourism sector and contributing to Fiji’s economy and overall prosperity.

Coral bleaching poses a significant threat to Fiji’s marine ecosystem, wherein coral colonies lose their vibrant colours due to the expulsion of symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae. We cannot pronounce it either, but we love when Helen says it like she’s just talking about bread. Because it literally is like bread to the corals.

This loss deprives corals of their primary food source, making them susceptible to stress and mortality. Coral bleaching weakens the corals, making them more prone to diseases and hindering their reproductive and growth abilities.

The overall health and biodiversity of the marine ecosystem suffer, impacting not only the corals but also the numerous species relying on them for survival. Coral bleaching can be triggered by elevated water temperatures, environmental stressors, or ocean acidification.

Fiji experienced a severe coral bleaching event from 2000 to 2002, resulting in extensive coral death across its reef systems. Prolonged exposure to water temperatures exceeding 29°C for over 56 days was the primary cause.

This event disrupted Fiji’s marine ecosystem’s ecological balance and biodiversity, leading to the loss of critical habitats for various marine species. Analysing data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reveals a concerning trend in global temperatures, with April 2023 being the fourth warmest April on record, emphasizing the persistent pattern of warming that demands urgent attention.

Rising global temperatures have far-reaching implications for marine ecosystems, including coral reefs. Understanding the link between water temperature and coral bleaching is crucial for comprehending the gravity of the situation facing Fiji’s reefs in 2023.

Conservation measures and sustainable practices are urgently needed to mitigate the impact of climate change on fragile marine ecosystems. FHTA is doing its part to share this awareness, create avenues to share wider understanding and hopefully bring about at least small, but incremental positive changes.

By addressing the root causes of rising temperatures and reducing carbon emissions, we can protect the resilience and adaptability of coral reefs, ensuring their survival and the long-term sustainability of our oceans and by extension Fiji’s tourism industry. That might not be important to most people reading this, but as our border closures showed, the consequence of no tourism meant the loss of thousands of jobs, the crippling of its vast supply chains and a marked decrease in the economic functioning of a country where tourism contributes a significant portion at 42%.

Protecting and supporting the industry, therefore, is an important part of our core functions, and we can do this by sharing information that can make a difference.

Detailed analysis of temperature logger data allows scientists to understand the changes in average summer water temperatures in Fiji. Recent studies by Marine Ecology Fiji have revealed the unexpected resilience of corals in the shallow reef in the Beqa area, defying historically lethal temperatures.

These corals have displayed an unprecedented level of adaptation and resistance, which raises intriguing questions about the mechanisms behind their survival, as well as capturing the attention of scientists around the world.

Fiji is now recognised as having not one, but two reefs that have been included in the globally recognised “50 Reefs” initiative, whose aim was “to identify an optimum portfolio of reefs for targeting coral reef conservation — fifty coral reefs that, together, have the potential of surviving the impacts of climate change and the ability to help repopulate neighbouring reefs over time”.

“Day-Glo” colours exhibited by certain corals may play a significant role in their ability to attract specific algae species, providing alternative sources of nutrients and energy. The adaptability of corals to rising water temperatures has direct implications for their ability to withstand future bleaching events and ensure the survival of Fiji’s coral reefs.

This knowledge also holds relevance for the tourism industry, as resilient coral reefs contribute to attractive and sustainable diving and snorkelling experiences. By promoting the conservation of these resilient reefs, Fiji can establish itself as a desirable tourist destination known for its thriving marine ecosystems, benefiting the tourism sector and local communities.

Coral reefs are vital ecosystems known as the “rainforests of the sea” due to their immense biodiversity and ecological significance.

They provide crucial services such as coastal protection, fish habitats, and tourism revenue, contributing eventually and in no small measure to Fiji’s economy.

The reefs also hold immense cultural value for the indigenous Fijian population.

To preserve Fiji’s marine ecosystem and sustain the tourism industry, we wanted to share how essential it is to implement sustainable practices and prioritize conservation efforts, and to do so as part of wider educational and community-shared practices.

This requires collaboration among government bodies, local communities, tourism operators, and visitors. Education taking this up in classrooms around Fiji because this is how future generations play a role.

Promoting responsible tourism practices, educating visitors about coral fragility (some of whom often know more about this than we do), and implementing reeffriendly guidelines can minimize the impact on coral reefs.

Conservation efforts should focus on protecting and restoring coral reefs through initiatives such as reef restoration projects and marine protected areas. Strong policies and regulations are necessary to enforce sustainable fishing practices, reduce pollution and runoff, and mitigate climate change effects.

Focusing on the preservation of Fiji’s marine ecosystem is paramount to securing the sustainability of Fiji’s vast ocean areas, the communities that rely on these and the tourism industry.

Renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle aptly stated that “The coral reef is the barometer of our planet’s health,” and this sentiment holds particular significance in the year 2023.

We must unite in our efforts to provide the necessary support for the survival of our coral reef ecosystems.

By taking charge of the aspects within our control, we can ensure that this becomes a top priority for future generations.

The vitality of our coral reefs not only impacts tourism but also plays a pivotal role in Fiji’s economy.

Therefore, safeguarding these natural treasures should be of importance to everyone.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 01 June 2023)