Growing up in his settlement in Nadi, western Fiji, Sundar Lal recalls an abundance of fish, crabs and prawns in the nearby creeks, rivers and foreshore areas.
"We never returned empty-handed," he recalls.
Lal, 80, lives in a small farming and fishing community, called Tunalia, on Fiji's main island, Viti Levu, in the Southern Pacific.
As part of Tunalia's fabric, fish is both an important source of protein and extra income.
Tunalia is representative of similar communities across the Fijian archipelago, where fishing holds deep cultural, economic and dietary significance.
According to the Pacific marine scientist, Professor Joeli Veitayaki, Fijians have relied on the sea as a food source for centuries.
Veitayaki says that because of their unique features, Fiji's tropical waters are teeming with a wide variety of fish.
This marine life is supported by an abundance of seagrass, and the world's third longest barrier reef system, the Great Sea Reef, extending 200km from the western coastline of Viti Levu, all the way to the north-eastern tip of Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that there are around 30,000 subsistence fishers in Fiji, including 50% of all rural households. Significantly, women make up more than 80% of subsistence fishing in Fiji.
Fiji's annual fish consumption, at 44 kilograms per-capita, is higher than the world average, according to the Asian Development Bank.
Killing the 'golden goose'
Tunalia's Lal, and his family, are just one beneficiary of Fiji's rich fishery. But Lal is concerned about a trend he has noticed in the last few decades. "We're not catching fish like we used to. We are having to go further out than before," he says.
It is fairly well-known that inshore fisheries, largely unmonitored and unregulated in Fiji have been under sustained fishing pressure for decades.
The reasons range from rising populations—resulting in increased fish consumption—to increased poverty, with more people turning to fishing to survive.
The stress on fishing is greatest whenever there is any economic hardship caused by political upheavals and/or natural disasters.
For instance, in parts of the country, entire sugar cane farming communities displaced as a result of expiring native land leases turned to fishing.
More recently, the media reported a noticeable increase in fishing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as the 115,000 newly-unemployed citizens turned to the sea to make ends meet.
Several scientific studies and reports indicate that unsustainable fishing methods, habitat destruction and pollution continue to take a heavy toll on fish stocks.
A four-year assessment (2014-2018) on the spawning potential of 129 inshore species found key stocks across Fiji in crisis.
The study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (Fiji), Ministry of Fisheries, World Wildlife Fund and the University of the South Pacific (USP), reported:
- More than half the species (17) assessed were below the internationally-benchmarked size limit.
- Staple species such as grouper and parrotfish were being caught before they were old enough to spawn, and;
- Over 57% of potential future reef fish yield would be lost unless better management practices were implemented.
"Our results suggest an urgent need to reform the management of Fiji's reef fish stocks so that fish are not caught before reproducing; that they have had a chance to replace themselves and keep populations stable," the report concluded.
Diminishing returns, deceptive appearances
As part of efforts to assess the situation, this Earth Journalism Network-USP Journalism investigation involved a three-day trip around Viti Levu to meet fishers, fish vendors and coastal communities.
Everywhere the story was the same: increasing costs and dwindling catches, with fishers having to travel further out for a reasonable haul.
"We used to find big fish near the shore and the reef, but not anymore," says Suren Chand, a fisherman from Ba.
Recently, Fiji's Fisheries Minister, Semi Koroilavesau, cited studies indicating that in the 1980s, fishers fished for a maximum of two hours to feed an entire village.
By 2000, longer hours were needed, even to meet individual household needs.
During the Viti Levu round trip, little seemed wrong on the surface.
Numerous fish vendors with abundant stock were encountered every few kilometers along Fiji's 500km main highway, selling a variety of species from makeshift stalls, as well as families hawking from front yards.
Despite the high prices, most vendors reported brisk sales of up to $FJ300 (US$146) on a good day.
In the town centers, there was abundant stock at the vibrant municipal fish markets and inside the freezers of the various supermarkets and smaller corner shops.
But looks can be deceiving, with study after study detailing the consequences of decades of sustained pressure on inshore fisheries.
According to a 2009 University of British Columbia report, 70 of Fiji's approximately 400 qoliqoli areas (traditional fishing grounds) were over-exploited.
"In Fiji, certain fisheries are in a very bad state due to continued overfishing, pollution and bad fishing practices," says Dr Sangeeta Mangubhai, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (Fiji). Mangubhai identifies the capture of undersized fish as a major contributor to the problem.
During this investigation, it was noticed that the sale of undersized fish, crabs and seashells was prevalent at most of the selling points on the main island.
Several fish vendors interviewed for this story confirmed that the authorities did not check on size limits, let alone enforce them.
“Small fish is sold openly at the markets,” said Anish Naidu, who sells his catch at the Lautoka city market. “Nobody checks it,” he added.
On most days, numerous people can be found catching fish no more than a few centimetres in size along the Suva and Nasese seawalls.
Dr Anjeela Jokhan, the former Dean at the University of the South Pacific's Faculty of Science, Technology and Environment, says inshore fisheries are less policed because it is viewed as 'subsistence', meaning small money.
"But in terms of the direct value on livelihoods, inshore fisheries is huge," she says. One recent report puts the total value of inshore fisheries at US$52m (FJ$108.45m) annually.
The WCS Fiji Director, Mangubhai, says a holistic approach is needed to manage reef and coastal fisheries to ensure that stocks remain healthy for future generations.
"Fishing is not bad," she says. "There are stocks you can fish at a certain level without depleting or crashing that fishery.
"But if you fish at sites where they reproduce; if you use too small a net and take out a lot of very small fish; if you don't follow size limits, that's a problem."
Mangubhai believes that there is an urgent need to update legislation on size limits and implement and police restrictions on dynamiting and gillnetting.
She points out that Fiji's Fisheries Act of 1942 was enacted when the country was a colony, with little scientific data available on size limits and vulnerable species.
"For some fish, the size limits are not adequate," says Mangubhai. "Then there's some fish that don't even have a size limit that really do need one."
There are some signs of hope. Since 2016, the Fijian Government has been working on a National Fisheries Policy for sustained growth in inshore fisheries as part of five-year and 20-year National Development Plans.
Government also places an annual four-month (June-September) ban on the highly-prized Grouper (Kawakawa) and Coral Trout (Donu) species during the breeding season.
But environmental organisations that had lobbied for the ban would have been disappointed to see it lifted this year due to the economic hardships caused by COVID-19.
Besides grouper and coral trout, there are no restrictions on some other heavily-harvested, yet ecologically-important species.
This includes Parrotfish, which this investigation found was sold freely in all sizes and colours, both at the local markets and on the roadsides.
The Nature Conservancy, a US-based environmental organisation, states that Bumphead Parrotfish stocks are 'heavily depleted' in Fiji.
Certain species of Parrotfish eat dead coral, and can also produce up to 320kg of sand every year, making them crucial for the reef ecosystem.
Recently, Jonathan Smith, a local diver and boat captain, posted pictures on Facebook of an apparently endangered variety of Parrotfish sold openly at the Labasa market in northern Fiji. "These fish are very easy to shoot at night, which is why the species is declining," he said.
Public awareness campaigns
The USP's Jokhan, who was overseeing a EU5.7 million (US$6.97m) European Union-funded regional project on sustainable fisheries, has called for a major national awareness campaign to effect a "cultural shift".
"I'm a strong believer in working with communities—creating awareness and solutions that they can implement and take ownership of," she says.
"We cannot create solutions and give it to fishing communities. We need to help them create solutions so that they realise why they need it—to save fisheries for the future generations."
'Plenty of fish in the sea'
Andrew Paris, another marine researcher at the USP, agrees that there is a need for a change in thinking in Fiji, where many people seem to think that the ocean will never run out of fish, with no catch-and-release culture of undersized fish.
"There's an endless supply of fish—I have heard that saying in the villages," Paris said.
"But people in these villages are noticing changes (diminishing fish supplies ).”
Paris is among experts considering traditional means of conservation, with strong community involvement.
"I know that in the iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) settings, certain totemic species were tabu (taboo) to catch or eat," says Paris.
"Ten or 20 years ago people were adhering to those traditional protocols but nowadays anything goes due to a capitalist-driven society where people are always in need of money."
Sitting under the shade of a big mango tree in Tunalia, Sundar Lal's face is creased with concern.
Fishing has fed his family and supplemented his income. He recalls the good old days in wonderment, while worrying about present trends, and future implications.
His fears are not misplaced: While Fiji still reaps a decent harvest from its bountiful seas, how much longer this good fortune will last is the key question.
USP Journalism training consultant Sheldon Chanel is a freelance journalist who writes for various publications, including The Guardian and Al Jazeera.
The Coordinator of the USP Journalism Programme, Dr Shailendra Singh, has written widely on Pacific issues, both as a journalist and as a media academic.
This USP Journalism-Earth Network Investigation was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network
This story first appeared in the January issue of Islands Business magazine.