Help Protect Our Planet's Coral Reefs

by The Coral Reef Alliance
John Vonokula, Fiji Program Coordinator
John Vonokula, Fiji Program Coordinator

In September 2016, the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) received a grant from the U.S. Department of State to expand our work in Fiji to Cakaudrove, Ra and Lau provinces. Together with our partners, we are working with these communities to build their capacity and effectively manage their resources through training workshops such as fisheries enforcement and financial administration.

These new funds allow us to expand our team and we are thrilled to introduce our new Program Coordinator, John Vonokula. Born and raised in Fiji, John is a certified diver who is passionate about engaging, learning from and working with communities to develop effective approaches to coral conservation.

“We are thrilled that John is joining the CORAL family,” says Dr. Michael Webster, Executive Director at CORAL. “John has 17 years years of experience working with Fiji’s fisheries department, and his knowledge, passion and energy will help ensure the success of CORAL’s expansion in Fiji.”

John has trained community members in best practices for livelihood activities and developed community-based and gazetted marine protected areas (MPAs). Recently, he was instrumental in developing a pilot approach to community-based coastal and marine spatial planning in Waivunia.

For more information about our current work in Fiji, please visit

Coral Reef, Namena
Coral Reef, Namena

It’s a hot, humid day and I’m visiting the village of Waivunia on the island of Vanua Levu in Fiji. I’m sitting around a kava bowl with community elders, and we are discussing how to protect and conserve their marine resources. You see, this community depends on coral reefs, but the reefs are facing mounting threats. The elders are concerned: they want to ensure there are fish in the sea for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I am here, in Fiji, as part of my work with the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), and at the request of communities who have asked us to help them create effective and durable approaches to coral conservation. I am here to help save coral reefs.


Talanoa session to discuss our work

CORAL has worked in Fiji for the past 15 years. We’ve worked closely with the resource management committee in the Kubulau district—also known as the KRMC. The Kubulau community has traditional ownership of the Namena Marine Reserve—one of the largest tabu (no take) areas in Fiji. Through training and micro-grants, we have helped the KRMC increase its management capacity, including establishing a voluntary fee program for visitors. In 2015, the community raised more than $20,000 to support the Namena Marine Reserve, community infrastructure projects and scholarship programs that have benefitted more than 170 students.

Over the last decade, we have seen the community’s capacity and autonomy grow. This was proven in February during the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Winston—a category 5 storm that passed directly over Kubulau. Following the storm, KRMC had the resources they needed to start the recovery process without opening their tabu area to fishing. By not using their marine resources, the community is helping the reef recover from the storm. 

View of Waivunia coastline

CORAL continues to play an important role in Kubulau and we have been pursuing ways to share our knowledge with other communities. This work bolsters efforts by the Fijian government to include 30 percent of its ocean in marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2020.

Our work has paid off. We are thrilled to announce that thanks to a grant awarded by the U.S. Department of State we will expand our work to Cakaudrove, Ra and Lau provinces.

In fact, we’ve already begun, and during my recent visit, I met with elders and community members from these provinces. What I learned is that each community approaches conservation in a different way.


Members of the Kubulau community discussing CORAL’s work

There is a unique opportunity in Waivunia. The elders are working with the government to launch a new nearshore management zoning pilot project. The project will identify different use zones in the marine environment such as fishing, tabu, and tourism. If successful, this approach could be rolled out to other communities across the country.

Ra is situated across the Bligh Passage from Namena Marine Reserve and many of its communities were hit hard by tropical cyclone Winston. In Ra, a number of governmental and non-governmental initiatives are underway to help improve management of marine protected areas.

Oneta is 200 miles across open ocean from Fiji’s capital Suva. Part of the Lau province, this island is less than three miles long and is surrounded by an atoll of reefs. Conservation in Lau is more localized; many communities have established tabu areas through traditional agreements and with little outside support. The community on Oneata reached out to Fiji’s Provincial Conservation Officer from the iTaukei Affairs Board for help. They connected the community to CORAL.

Together with partners, we will help these communities strengthen their approaches to conservation. Through training in topics like fisheries enforcement and financial administration, we will build the capacity of local communities to effectively manage their resources. We will use what we’ve learned from our work in Kubulau as the basis for building a network of effectively managed areas in Fiji.

I look forward to my next visit to Fiji, to sitting down with community leaders to drink kava and talk about how we can save reefs. We look forward to once again sharing what we learn so that our collective successes can guide and shape conservation work across the entire region.

We can save coral reefs for the children of today and tomorrow.

My work with the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) provides me with many memorable experiences and opportunities. One of the greatest rewards is meeting and working with such diverse groups of people and building strong connections with the communities in Fiji.

Following Tropical Cyclone Winston, l discovered just how passionately connected to the Kubulau community I had become. I wanted to do more to help, and in July, I had an amazing opportunity to connect on a much larger scale at the inaugural Melanesian Spearhead Group, Emerging Leaders Program. Here, I learned about new ways to help community’s recovery from devastation and hardships caused by such a catastrophic storm.

During the Melanesian Youth Leaders Forum, I met people from Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji. We all shared our successes and challenges and along the way, we gathered valuable and shareable lessons.


The Melanesia Emerging Leaders delegation with The President, and staff of both the Melanesian Spearhead Group and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.

Forum Snapshot: Sharing Knowledge to Make a Difference

We were welcomed by the President of Vanuatu the Honorable Baldwin Jacobson Lonsdale in a traditional welcoming ceremony. The four-day program was in two broad parts: presentations by different organizations in the morning and traveling to field sites to see how the work is carried out in different parts of Efate.

The most inspiring session was with the Minister for Lands, the Honorable Ralph Regenvanu. He spoke eloquently about his experiences growing up in the midst of Vanuatu fighting (to gain independence), and how they shaped and influenced his decisions. He realized early the importance of culture and traditions and that led him to study anthropology. When he saw that the work he was doing was being undermined by the way land issues were being handled, he returned to school to study law and then went into politics because the only way he felt he could make real changes was from the inside.

Team Fiji with the Honorable Minister for Lands - Ralph Regenvanu.

Team Fiji with the Honorable Minister for Lands – Ralph Regenvanu.

The biggest takeaway emerged from the afternoon field site visits and the work being done by Wan Smol Bag, Activ, and Lapita. These three companies have managed to continue to work despite the challenges faced during and post-Tropical Cyclone Pam. Compared to Fiji’s recent Tropical Cyclone Winston, there are many similarities in the adversity they faced and how they are working on recovery.

Activ is a company that sells local handicrafts and teaches those in the community how to make quality goods. Lapita is a bakery, owned by an indigenous local, who sources products within the community. Visiting these businesses, I immediately imagined how we could replicate these ideas in Fiji. These local practices perfectly pair with CORAL’s conservation work to create and support marine protected areas in an effort to create alternative livelihoods and lessen the reliance on coral reef resources.

A unique lesson I learned is how theater and arts are used to share messages, or even provide meaningful alternative activities for young people. At present, much of the recovery effort has focused on basic necessities such as delivery of food, water, and rebuilding materials. Moving forward there is an opportunity to provide more support for emotional and psychological support for victims of Tropical Cyclone Winston. In Vanuatu, I saw the positive impacts that theater and arts played in helping communities cope with trauma. A lesson I can take back to Fiji.

This forum is a powerful example of what can happen when you unite people from various communities from around the globe. I left the forum with new friends and ideas about how to help Fiji communities continue to recover from disaster. I look forward to sharing this knowledge with CORAL and the communities at the forefront of local conservation efforts here in Fiji.

For many of us, coral reefs are vacation destinations; places we feel lucky to visit. We plan our trip and packing lists carefully, and bring clothes and sunscreens to protect our skin from the intensity of the equatorial sun, but as we reported in January, sunscreen is not as safe for corals as we once thought.

Sunscreen is bad for corals

Photo Credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

This June, many of the world’s top coral reef scientists met at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Hawaii to discuss the challenges facing coral reefs. Sunscreen and other personal care product ingredients were hot topics. Of particular concern to scientists was oxybenzone, a chemical used in sunscreens to protect our skin from damaging UV light. Oxybenzone is bad news for corals, harming them by;

  • Increasing a coral’s susceptibility to bleaching
  • Damaging coral DNA which interferes with reproduction
  • Causing deformities and growth anomalies
  • Disrupting a coral’s hormonal processes for growth and reproduction

Perhaps most alarming is that all of this can happen with very low doses of the chemical, only 62 parts per trillion (equivalent to one drop of water in 6.5 Olympic swimming pools)! Sunscreen can enter the water directly from our bodies while swimming, or it can wash off the sand at the beach. Spray-on sunscreens especially create a chemical cloud that often misses the skin and settles on the sand. As the tide comes in, all these chemicals wash into the ocean; one study found higher oxybenzone concentrations in the ocean at high tide than low tide. Sunscreen chemicals can also enter the ocean in treated wastewater after it is washed off in the shower or excreted through urine.

So what can we do? This session shared some good news: we can protect ourselves from the sun and protect coral reefs from harmful chemicals. Just use these simple guidelines:

  • While at the beach wear a shirt and hat, and use a long-sleeved rash guard when swimming.
  • Avoid spray-on sunscreens, and use safer mineral-based sunscreens like zinc oxide or titanium oxide.
  • Look for marine safe products, such as those marked with the “Marine Safe” icon.

If we all follow these guidelines, the next time you’re on vacation gliding over a picturesque coral reef, you can snorkel with the peace of mind knowing that you aren’t the source of any reef-harming chemicals.


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Organization Information

The Coral Reef Alliance

Location: Oakland, CA - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Sarah Freiermuth
Marketing & Communications Director
San Francisco, CA United States
$13,512 raised of $25,000 goal
246 donations
$11,488 to go
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