Jun 11, 2021

The COVID Crisis Hits Fiji, But the Work Goes On!

Mangrove Planting Activity May 2021
Mangrove Planting Activity May 2021

Fiji Faces the Challenges of a new Super-Spreader Strain


Bula everyone, 

Fiji is now in the midst of a major crisis. Over a year ago all tourism stopped and we have had severe economic consequences and unemployment.  However we had a full year of no community spread of the virus, and we could move freely around the country without masks. Yes, a few cases were intercepted effectively at the border as all arrivals enter a two-week quarantine in a facility.  However, the new super-spreader strain (B1.617.2) of COVID-19 jumped right over the vaccine and quarantine, and now over 800 people have been infected in many communities. The last week we have had betwen 33 and 94 new cases per day. 

Two New Coral Nurseries Planted and Dozens of Fish-house Structures Deployed

In spite of the challenges, our C4C team, consisting of our coral gardener Merekeleni, and five volunteers, is at the field sties, housed at the now closed Plantation Island Resort. They have been there over-time for the past five weeks now due to the lock downs, separated from their families. The team, under Keleni's guidance, has carried out a tremendous amount of work; removing COTS, creating new coral nurseries in two areas, creating and deploying dozens of fish-house structures planted with heat adapted corals taken from extremly shallow hot pockets, planting mangroves and cleaning the beach when the waves were too big to go out, or when the team was just feeling too water-logged!  Plantation island Resort has been very gracious to host the team, providing accommodation, food, and boats!  The major trimming and outplanting planned for this month has been postponed, but we hope to do that in July or August, as we hopefully are able to rotate a new team in and also get Austin, the team scientists back in from the main island, where he has been stuck in the lockdowns.  During that time, we hope to create at least one new nursery and several putplanting sites with our second generation heat adapted corals trimmed from the existing nurseries, to establish known bleaching resistant and bleaching sensitive corals on both cooler outer reefs and hotter inner reefs (see map).  With the additional nurseries and our temperature loggers in place, we will then be well prepared for the next bleaching even and to finally prove that our strategy of moving corals from hot inner reefs to cooler outer reefs is effective at combating climate change and coral reef demise. Moving corals locally will help prevent the demise of the bleaching resistant corals, as the habitats they presently live in may become too hot for any corals to survive, while the outer reefs will not get as hot. Unfortunately the cooler adpated corals of the outer reef may die out, leaving only the pockets of heat adapted corals that we have planted.   

Temperature Loggers Capable of Recording Data for Five Years Have Arrived!

We have finally received twenty Hobo recording temperature loggers, which we will soon be able to deploy throughout the site to map the temperatures over time.  The loggers will record the water temperature every 30 minutes for at least five years.  We also plan to send some to Kiribati and Tuvalu for the coral nurseries there, to be depolyed by our partners, once the mail service is restored.  

Raising the Alarm - the Coral Reefs of Kiribati as the Most Impacted on the Planet!  

Im May, I drafted a report on the repeated mass bleaching and death of the coral reefs of Kiribati, and submitted it to the Kiribati Ambassador to the UN, Mr Teburoro Tito, and he has forwarded the report to key members of his government. The coral reefs of Kiribati are over 90% dead now, directly due to hot water bleaching, and noone seems to have noticed!  Included in my report is a proposed action plan based on our successful Christmas Atoll, Kiribati project, which has now been published as a chapter in a new book on coral restoration.  

Progress has been made on the website, and the BBC TV nine-minute film "The Coral Gardener" has been uploaded and can now be accessed on the website. www.corals4conservation.org 

Super Donors are Saving Super Corals

In Fiji we have super corals and unbelievably beautiful reefs still persist, and we send a super thank you to our super donors!  We are receiving donations in Euros, Pounds, US, New Zealand, Australian, and Canadian dollars, etc, and we are also privileged to be chosen by key GlobalGiving corporate partners who sponsor gift cards.  Vinaka vakalevu (abundant thanks) to everyone who has donated and/or who has shared our reports and links, as our web of friends is widening. 

The Coral Gardening Team Planting Mangroves
The Coral Gardening Team Planting Mangroves
Coral Gardening Team Removing Coral-Killing COTS
Coral Gardening Team Removing Coral-Killing COTS
Mamanuca Restoration Sites and Planned Sites
Mamanuca Restoration Sites and Planned Sites
Austin and Grandson Kiki Unpacking the Loggers!
Austin and Grandson Kiki Unpacking the Loggers!
Apr 12, 2021

Happy Chickens Are Even Happier With Their New Mulched Bedding

Seriana and Philipe from Navua
Seriana and Philipe from Navua

 

Fiji has just come out of the wettest wet season in a decade or more, due to  very wet "La Nina" conditions.  Our summer is in December through March, and this year the ocean became quite warm. We were extremely worried about the corals bleaching and dying, but Mother Nature turned on her "fan" and generated four cyclones, which cooled the waters off. The winds were quite destructive and frequent flooding occurred in the country.  The cyclones mostly affected the country 150 km north of us here at the farm.  But due to  all the rain, our pens became horribly muddy in spite of digging new drains.  The chickens and those tending them were miserable, and some of the chickens got sick in the unsanitary conditions.  Fortunately, a simple solution was developed and help was in sight.

In January our Happy Chickens project received a grant from the New Zealand government to purchase a wood chipper, and this seems to have solved nearly 100% of our chicken disease problems. The powerful wood chipping machine was an answer to our prayers! 

We have been busy mulching Chinese Jung Chao cane grass "mushroom grass", recently introduced to Fiji for growing mushrooms in, plus leguminous tree branches.  We do clean the houses regularly and use the dry composted manure for the farm's gardens and crops, but cleaning was not enough.  So we put a thick layer of fresh compost  over the chicken yard and any muddy places, and also a heavy layer in each of the seven hen houses. This prevented the hens from making dust baths in the dried up dusty compost inside the houses- it forces them to do their dust bathing in clean dirt far outside of their houses and yards.  Pathogens could be carried by chickens reveling in impromptu dust baths--that behavior has been stopped with the benefit of a disease free environment. 

The chickens also enjoy eating some of the chopped mulch, which is high in protein and sugars.  The freshly chopped China grass gets surprising hot within a few hours after chopping, not like other things we chop up.  Another grass crop is growing now, and we will be able to redo this every other month, after removing the well-rotted layer for use in the gardens. 

Fiji is going through a difficult period, with 40% losing their jobs due to the closure of all international tourism. With no unemployment benefits, poverty has become much worse in the country.  Happy Chickens offers an alternative to hunger; we continue to hatch about 15 dozen chicks per week, and we continue to give chickens to needy families. 

For the less needy, those who are not destitute and who still have an income through sales of farm produce, we continue to sell chicks at below production cost. The official government poverty line in Fiji is determined by when a family makes less than $3,500. USD per YEAR (not a typo).  So nearly everyone we deal with is struggling.  At $15. USD per dozen, we are able to sell all 15 dozen from the farm each week, which gives some contact time to do a tour of the chicken houses and to share knowledge on tips for success.  We often throw in some free chicks, especially for those who come far on foot or horseback, or if they come to buy half a dozen because that is all they can afford.  For people who were selected for a recent US Embassy funded livelihoods training here at the farm, we have given or will shortly give 2-3 dozen larger chicks each.  Many of these chickens we have raised up for six to eight weeks before distribution.  Photos are below.  

Here's a month's activity at Happy Chicken permaculture farm: 

1. A six-day hands-on workshop sponsored by the US Embassy as a livelihoods training for village women. 

2.  Delivery of two dozen two-week old chicks as a gift to a struggling older retired couple in Navua.

3.  36 half-sized chickens to six poor coastal families in Naidiri Village (5 hens and a rooster each), plus seven of these larger chickens were sent to a family in Naitasiri province, and eight were given to three neighbor children being raised by their elderly grandparents- they arrived on horseback and they caught two buckets of baby crabs in the stream for our fish pond in "payment"- but it was good fun!

There's never a dull moment living with Happy Chickens:  from mulching cane grass for therapeutic chicken baths and bedding, to enjoying a week of knowledge exchange with key villagers who will return to share best practices, supporting struggling elders with a much-appreciated gift of chicks, supplying pint-sized chicks to poor coastal families who in-turn share, watching kids catch buckets of baby crabs by our fish pond...it's all so meaningful and spells survival to so many here in Fiji.  

A heartfelt thanks goes out to all of you who continue to build this project, allowing us to expand the numbers helped, and to be resilient and find solutions to climate change challenges!

Austin Bowden-Kirby

Sharing our joy:  We've welcomed my newest grandchild, Joycelee, who will grow up with her older brother Kiki, mingling with the chickens and loving the healthy environment.

 

  

US Embassy funded Livelihoods Workshop
US Embassy funded Livelihoods Workshop
Wilma and Torika receiving their chickens
Wilma and Torika receiving their chickens
Each sack has 2-3 chickens!
Each sack has 2-3 chickens!
Mesake with one of his new half sized chickens
Mesake with one of his new half sized chickens
Feb 11, 2021

In the COVID-19 Free South Pacific, the Work to Save Coral Reefs Intensifies

Volunteers do a lot of work but also have fun!
Volunteers do a lot of work but also have fun!

EXCITING NEWS! Our project has been selected as one of only six case study sites for coral reef restoration by the United Nations, with our project taking up five pages out of a 45-page globally significant UNEP document!  Our full Kiribati report has also been updated and selected for publication as a chapter in a book on coral reef restoration.

While the Global pandemic has changed so many things, here in Fiji and much of the South Pacific there is no community spread of the virus at all, and so we can move about as always.  However, with no air travel and all commercial flights cancelled, it is still impossible to travel to Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Samoa, and so follow up trips planned for our sites there have not been possible, but we continue to work with our local partner organizations via email.  In the mean time, we have focused on the Fiji sites, with especially intensive work in the Malolo sites from September. 

We have gone into the sites each month since then, with teams of ten volunteers for two-week rotations, supervised by our two professional coral gardeners, Sarah, Keleni, and myself.  The volunteers are mostly unemployed graduates from the marine studies program at the university, living at home with their parents due to a greatly retracted economy, now that tourism is closed down.  These young people are real gems. They have an excellent background, but are bored with the present situation at home, and thus thrilled and thankful to be out in the ocean again! 

Surprise from Mother Nature:  A String of Tropical Cyclones Cools the Waters & Averts Widespread Coral Bleaching.

We have focused on preparing the reefs and coral nurseries for a predicted mass coral bleaching and mass death event, that was expected to hit starting this month (February), in the heart of our southern hemisphere summer.  Water temperatures have reached 33C (>90F), at times in our bleaching resistant coral nurseries.  Howevre, in a dynamic turn of weather trends, four cyclones hit Fiji in sequence since November, brushing past our sites (no direct hits), and cooling off the waters, so that only a minor bleaching has emerged so far.

Coral Saving Strategy has Crown of Thorns Starfish Relinquishing Killer Hold on Reefs

Our primary strategy has been to remove the venomous, coral killing, Crown of Thorns starfish (COTS), which have infested parts of our reefs, with intense focus in our planned coral outplanting and restoration sites.  We can not replant corals unless and until these animals are under better control, otherwise we are just feeding the problem. 

After removing hundreds of COTS from four targeted reefs, it is finally becoming harder to find them, as their abundance is much lower.  After two more months of mop-up operations, we will be ready in May to commence with the out-planting of corals trimmed from the nurseries , when the waters begin to cool off again. The goal is to create sizable patches of bleaching resistant super corals on the reefs, corals that will grow into adult colonies and begin to spawn, sending their babies onto the wider reef system.  This plan will test the idea that these corals share their heat adapted super-algae with nearby corals and incoming coral larvae, helping them to also become bleaching resistant. Our prediction is that the bleaching resistant reef patches will increase in size and diversity over time, and that the downcurrent coral populations will become more resistant, as the resistant corals spawn and send their larvae and algae into the wider reef system.  

In these times of great heat stress, the corals should not be fragmented for planting, as that added stress can lead to their death.  As an alternative strategy, entire colonies can be moved, if kept in the same upright orientation. Therefore, we successfully collected more super coral candidates from the hot pocket reefs and we moved one entire coral nursery of over 80 large mother corals from an extreme hot pocket into cooler waters. 

Local-focused Partnerships with Tuvalu and Kiribati Youth for Environmental Restoration and Food Source Alternatives to Overfishing

The Tuvalu youth group that we work with has sent a wonderful report and photos showing their work removing tons of invasive seaweeds that have smothered the corals, using the sargassum seaweed as fertilizer in their sweet potato gardens.  Weeding of the invasive seaweeds from around the few remaining corals in the town area is creating clean bare rock, which will receive corals trimmed from the super coral nurseries. This coral planting can occur after the third removal is completed, ensuring that the seaweeds are killed out in the restoration patches before the coral work begins.

The Kiribati nursery corals continue to thrive under the care of our local partners, who have recently sent photos of the nursery.  The over-abundant parrotfish continue to suppress the coral growth in the nursery, normally a problem, but at this time the slower growth has helped ensure that the nursery is kept manageable, with the corals we trimmed last March regrowing slowly and not fighting with their neighbors.  The planned creation of two new nurseries in areas with fewer parrotfish is on hold for now.  The efforts we took in teaching alternate food sources in this import-dependent community: sweet potatoes, edible banana flowers and stems, wild greens, and edible seaweeds, has proven very useful, as imports have become harder to obtain, with a major slowdown in shipping and total stoppage of air freight due to the pandemic. 

Unfortunately, we have not been able to follow up with the work in our partnership site on Moorea, in French Polynesia, with the "Coral Gardeners" youth-driven NGO. Even with flights inward possible, a COVID epidemic has ravaged the islands, as they have continued to allow tourists in.  

Livelihood Workshops for Reef Dependent Communities, Seaweed and Giant Clam Farming, and Disaster Relief Shifts into High Gear with our Experienced Corals for Conservation Officer. 

Back in Fiji, a livelihoods workshop for reef dependent communities is going on right now at our Teitei Livelihoods Centre, and our Naidiri coral restoration site is well represented.  Our community officer Simione Koto is missing, as he is off to the north of Fiji, to Vanua Levu island, to assist with cyclone relief and channeling disaster aid sent to us through GlobalGiving.  He is also following up on prospects for new coral restoration sites there in the two communities we are assisting.  The government has almost no aid for the communities, only a week of food rations, and no material support whatsoever, as the tax base of the nation has collapsed due to the closure of the tourism industry.  We are distributing cyclone strapping, nails, and roofing screws to secure rafters, beams, and roofs, to many households, to strengthen what they manage to rebuild.  The elderly and single mothers with devastated houses have been identified across the communities and are initial targets for urgent relief.  With the shoring up housing, both the structures and the people who live in them will be able to survive in the next storm. 

The Fiji Ministry of Fisheries sent four of their officers into our Mamanuca site and they are working with us on the farming of commercially valuable and edible seaweeds in the ocean as a potential community livelihood, well as the farming of overfished and endangered giant clam species, for restoration of the important species back to the reefs.

Volunteer and Intern Opportunity in Covid-19 Free Fiji for Families, and Students!

For individuals and families who read this who would like to come serve in Fiji as self-supporting volunteers, student interns, or scientific researchers in our coral reef and community development sites, we certainly could use your help.  We recently met with Fiji Immigration and it is possible to bring people in through quarantine and on the weekly repatriation flight from LAX, as long as we get you a proper volunteer permit valid for one year.  Marine biology, agriculture, natural resources management, and community development graduates worldwide who are passionate about community prosperity and preserving the coral reef ecosystem may find such an internship an amazing opportunity.  You might reach out to your university to see if this would qualify for an individual study course.  Otherwise the experience will be enriching and will help prepare you for a career in your field.  Please send us an email if you are interested.

As always, we thank you for your support and your continued and sacrificial donations, none of this amazing progress would have been possibly without small donors like you.  For those planning on donating again, coming soon is a matching and bonus opportunity in March from GlobalGiving- the "Little by Little" campaign, and again in April for Earth Week bonuses.  

Vinaka vakalevu,

Austin

Tuvalu Invasive Seaweed Removal Project
Tuvalu Invasive Seaweed Removal Project
Kiribati Coral Nursery January, 2021
Kiribati Coral Nursery January, 2021
Giant Clam Babies Arrive from Fisheries!
Giant Clam Babies Arrive from Fisheries!
Seaweed Farming Trials Begin in the Fiji Sites!
Seaweed Farming Trials Begin in the Fiji Sites!
Crown of Thorns Starfish Removed from Nuku Reef
Crown of Thorns Starfish Removed from Nuku Reef
Volunteers get a great experience and education.
Volunteers get a great experience and education.

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