Discovering Life in an Unexplored Archipelago, The Lau Seascape, Fiji Project
The Lau Group
Lau is made up of an extensive system of small, often interlinked islands and coral reefs. There are 60 main islands and islets, half of which are inhabited, distributed across 336,000 km2 of ocean (over twice the area of England and Wales combined). There are approximately 10,000 inhabitants, who are culturally distinct and entirely dependent on the sea for food and livelihoods. Idyllic as the region may seem, the province has historically been under-supported with investment and support for natural resource management. This has led to degradation of land, coastlines and offshore habitats. This in turn has negatively affected the people’s ability to sustain their families. The impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly evident, which puts further pressure on local communities and the ecosystems they depend upon.
UNEXPLORED BY SCIENCE
After the ‘discovery’ of the Lau island archipelago in the late 1700s by Captain James Cook, and the initial biological surveys conducted by his crew, most of the Lau area remains scientifically unexplored. Poor transportation and communication infrastructure, coupled with the remoteness of the islands, have discouraged widespread surveys of Lau province — leaving it extremely data deficient. While some marine surveys were conducted in recent years, they visited only the most accessible locations and covered few of the islands and surrounding reefs. However, these preliminary surveys provided researchers with glimpses of a rich underwater world with truly exceptional biodiversity, highlighting the importance of the area for global marine conservation.
The most recent marine expedition – a short survey conducted by Conservation International and Auckland Museum in 2017 — cataloged at least nine fish species previously unknown to science, as well as over fifty fish species previously not recorded for Fijian waters. The findings impressed the local chiefs so much that they declared the survey site (Navatu reef - a remote atoll under customary tenure) a Marine Protected Area within hours of receiving our survey results.
Pseudanthias ventralis, was just one of the 527 reef fish species recorded during the survey of the Lau Islands.
Image credit: Mark Erdmann Conservation International
However, the surveys also recorded the impacts of overuse, mismanagement and climate change. The significance of these survey findings is clear: the Lau archipelago is vast, mostly unexplored, and contains a wealth of undescribed species and stunning ecosystems. Yet we risk losing this biological wonder before it’s even been fully explored and discovered.
Conservation International is bringing people together under the framework of the ‘Lau Seascape’, which is in an initiative to help Fiji protect this remote archipelago before it is lost. We work with the Fiji government, chiefs and residents of the Lau islands, organizational partners, and researchers from local, regional and global universities and museums to effectively protect this area. As a first step, it is imperative to conduct a thorough scientific investigation of the remaining reefs and islands in Lau. Only with detailed knowledge of Lau’s biological diversity and the distribution of its natural resources can we implement sustainable management plans. These plans aim to include large-scale marine protected areas, terrestrial protected areas, community-based management practices, sustainable fisheries for local food security, and investments for sustainable growth of the local economy. All with the aim to help Fiji achieve its Sustainable Development Goals while protecting its ocean ecosystems.
The Government of Fiji recently made significant commitments to the protection of the Lau Seascape. At the 2017 United Nations Our Oceans Conference in New York, the Fijian government declared:
[By 2025] the Lau seascape will implement a series of integrated terrestrial and marine managed areas, operating under a co-management framework. The areas will be developed through ecosystem-based spatial planning to achieve sustainable production targets, maintenance of ecosystem services and food security for remote island communities, as well as overall protection of Lau’s natural capital for the sustainable development of the islands of Lau to support the wellbeing of its citizens.
Learn More about the Lau Seascape
Over three-quarters of the Lau Islands remain unexplored by scientists. The University of Adelaide will partner with Conservation International and the University of South Pacific to conduct these crucial terrestrial surveys over 2019/2020.
Herein lies a unique moment in time — there is a political will, right now, to ensure long-term conservation of the Lau islands and oceans for Fiji and Lau’s people.