While we celebrate World Oceans Day and reminded of humanity’s shared resource that is the ocean and the personal connection that we have with the sea, we are also reminded that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched beyond the terrestrial realms, but into our waters as well.
Last year, the COVID-19 crisis caused a collapse of the tourism industry, a whopping 84 percent decline in visitor arrivals in Fiji and a decrease in fisheries resulting in a 5.8 percent contraction in Pacific Small Island States (SIDS) Gross Domestic Product.
While marine sectors were severely shaken, the ocean still offers a huge potential to Pacific islands. Pacific Ocean-based fishing and tourism provide USD 3.3 billion to the national economics of Pacific countries and territories. Otherwise known as the Blue Economy, sustainable use of ocean resources can contribute to economic growth, job creation, and inclusion of segments of population that are left behind.
To benefit from the Blue Economy, Pacific SIDS need to be proactive, innovative and strategic in the way they utilize and manage their 200 nautical miles EEZ (more than 19 million km2). To put this into perspective, one must remember that the combined population of all Pacific SIDS is only about 11.5 million inhabitants. How would it be possible for governments to sustainably manage and preserve this space? Pacific islanders already have an answer to the problem: customary resource tenure and local governance.
In other words, it is the local communities who manage their own coastal resources. Reports indicate that there are more than 500 communities currently managing 12,000 km2 of coastal resources across the Pacific. Such approaches benefit from the local traditional knowledge and awareness of local communities and result in better acceptance than a top-down approach.
Case in point is Fiji’s first marine reserve called the Shark Reef Marine Reserve. Designated as a reserve in 2004, the marine area protects sharks and their habitat from coral all the way to fishes from the persistent threat of overfishing.
Recognizing the necessity of protecting the very resources that they’ve relied on for their livelihoods for so many years, the villagers of Galoa graciously relinquished their fishing rights in exchange for a ‘Shark Reef Marine Reserve Levy’ of FJD 20 paid by each diver. This money is collected by Beqa Adventure Divers, a private for-profit conservation project and dive operator entrusted with managing the Marine Area, who then deposits the proceeds monthly into the village’s community bank account.
This provides a steady cash flow to the villagers whose occupation is often riddled by fluctuating incomes due to a decline in fish available for catch. Meanwhile, the Marine Reserve has become saturated with fishes and this has even increased fishing yields on the neighbouring unprotected reefs.
Scientific research is a cornerstone of the Shark Reef Marine Reserve project. Since 2003, Beqa Adventure Divers has been keeping a record of over 300 individual sharks of 8 different species, and enabled the publication of over one dozen peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals. In 2018, thanks to UNDP support, Beqa Adventure Divers launched My Fiji Shark whereby people can adopt sharks that frequent the shark reef waters, thus providing another source of income to reinvest in conservation efforts.
In 2014, the Shark Reef Marine Reserve became Fiji’s first statutory Marine Park, and Beqa Adventure Divers was entrusted with its day-to-day management in a ground-breaking Public-Private Partnership.
Despite their widely documented benefits, such arrangements like marine reserves and locally managed marine areas are facing financial barriers that prevent the required expansion, replication, and resilience. Mobilizing financing for sustainable development during the COVID conjuncture is particularly challenging for Pacific SIDS governments. In addition, marine conservation projects are not attracting as much impact capital as the rest of the impact investment market.
That is why, in Fiji, UNDP is working with UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF), UN Environment Programme, the Ministry of Economy, CSOs, NGOs, and private sector partners to address such structural issues. The ‘Investing in Coral Reefs and Blue Economy’ Project provide catalytic investments to unlock private and public investment capital for initiatives that have a positive impact on Fijian coral reefs and the communities that rely on them. In COVID times, the project is expected to provide much needed capital for marine areas to weather the storm that is COVID, diversify their revenue, and continue the conservation work until normalcy is back. The project is expected to create more than 100 jobs and sustain to the incomes and food security of more than 6,000 fisher households.
 Seidel & Lal. 2010. Economic value of the Pacific Ocean to the Pacific Island Countries and Territories. IUCN. Gland. 75 p
 Govan, Hugh et al. (2009). Status and potential of locally-managed marine areas in the Pacific Island Region: meeting nature conservation and sustainable livelihood targets through wide-spread implementation of LMMAs. University Library of Munich, Germany, MPRA Pa.