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The Drew Lab in the field

This post is written by the writer in residence for the Drew Lab’s 2014 expedition, Meehan Crist. We would like to thank the Mindlin Foundation for providing funding to allow us to bring such a talented writer along with us to the field

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The Drew lab is taking it easy today. Elora is napping on the grass under her sulu, Molly is using the field computer to catch up on some data entry, Erin has gone to check out some nearby waterfalls, and Dr. Drew has gone to town to see if the ATM is working yet. But the students and their professor are only having such an easy day because over the past two weeks they’ve collected and processed nearly 500 coral reef fish on the Fijian islands of Viti Levu, Vanua Levu and Taviuni. Day after day, they’ve risen with the sun, breakfasted on fresh papaya and warm coconut rolls, suited up in still-damp dive gear, and finned out into the ocean with spears in one hand and catch bags in the other. I, for the most part, have carried the underwater camera.

Last week on the reefs off the village of Nagigi, a cluster of about 50 tin-roofed homes nestled into palm trees and bougainvillea along the edge of the sea, we saw dozens of different fish species—angelfish, grouper, wrasse of all shapes and sizes. Elora and Molly learned to spear fish while Erin revived skills from last year’s field season. Drew’s snorkel bobbed in the distance. Even as the team marveled at the stripes and spots and flashing silver sides, they were collecting fish to be taken ashore, where gills would be removed and placed into sterile tubes for DNA analysis back home. Each de-gilled specimen would be soaked in formalin and wrapped in gauze, destined for a future in a glass jar at New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

But the coral was patchy, bleached dead in some places and absent in others. Desolate white sand stretched between clusters of boulder coral. There was little or no soft coral in sight. Today, the children of Nagigi grow up with an impoverished iteration of the reef their parents and grandparents once knew. “Now we are starting to worry. This age group,” said Masivesi, a lanky Fijian farmer in his 40s who had generously opened his home to us for the week. “About 30 years ago, you walk on the reef here, you can fill one 50kg bag. With fish. With shells. Now, if you walk on the reef there, you can walk to 500 meters, you still can’t fill that bag halfway.”

This generation has a choice: if they want their children and grandchildren to be able to eat and earn a living off their reef, they can choose to manage marine resources once so richly abundant they seemed infinite. If they do not, the fish will continue to disappear and the reef may die. If the coral disappears for good, the area will go through a “phase shift” and they will be left with nothing but algae.

This precarious situation is not a surprise to the Drew lab. This is Drew’s fifth visit to Nagigi since 2006—he is determined to practice the opposite of “parachute science”—and the villagers of Nagigi have invited his team to help them set up a tabu, an area where fishing is banned for a time to give coral and fish populations a chance to recuperate. In conservation parlance, a tabu is a Marine Protected Area, or MPA, and for the past decade Fijian chiefs have been taking conservation into their own hands by declaring tabu in their traditional fishing grounds, or qoliqoli. The villagers here have talked about setting up a tabu for one year, or maybe three years, with the option to briefly lift the ban for major events, such as the celebration of an important marriage or to honor a deceased chief. The villagers know the situation is not hopeless—the reef is not dead; it’s just very much in need of a rest, and the data the Drew lab collects this field season will help the chief decide where to institute a tabu. This data will also be combined with data from previous years to provide a baseline against which the success of the ban can be measured.

Drew is here to work with village leaders, but he is also investigating his own scientific questions. Nagigi offers a rare opportunity to study the effects of an MPA in real time. He is interested in how fish species respond to protection over time, “if conservation alters the suite of species present on a reef.” And his students will use the data collected here as part of a broader investigation into population genetics of reef fish across Fiji, which could help direct conservation efforts toward the areas that most need protection. Back in New York, the American Museum of Natural History (which has loaned Drew’s team an ultra-cold traveling freezer cooled by liquid nitrogen) is waiting for new fish specimens to add to its collections.

On one of our last days in Nagigi, a stocky Fijian man in a floppy khaki hat and dark wrap-around sunglasses cruises up to the shore in a boat belonging to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Sirilo “Didi” Dulunaquio now works for WCS, but in the 1990s he worked with 10 chiefs in the Kubulau District to establish the Namena Reserve off the northern side of the island. He wants to leave by two-o’clock because it’s a long ride back to Savusavu and he’s worried about the glare on the water. The lab is delighted to see him and his boat, because so far we’ve been unable to go out on the reefs farther than we can swim.

Drew and his three students wade out to the boat and climb in, passing bags of freediving gear – snorkels, masks, flippers – on board. Once we’re settled, Didi maneuvers us out through the patch reef we’ve been diving all week, eyeing the water for shallow spots, heading toward the island that sits about a mile offshore. We go slow until we hit the deeper water of the channel, then Didi guns the engine, the front of the boat lifts slightly, and we head out past the island and into the open ocean. Waves are breaking about 45 feet off the back side of the island. Reef.

We slow about twenty feet from the breaking waves and drop anchor, careful to find a sandy patch between the coral. This reef is nothing like the patch reef on the inner side of the island. This is a whole landscape of groove and spur, undulating waves of sheer coral cliff face that stretch at least 60 meters down to the seabed. The coral here is multi-colored and densely packed. Canyons of coral. Gorges and plains. There are sea anemones and clouds of curious damselfish, butterflyfish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, and angelfish. Fish and divers are all rocking with the suck and drag of the waves breaking overhead. I carry the fancy camera in its clear underwater case, clicking into the shimmering blue, hoping to get clear shots that the scientists can use to identity different fish species. I wonder if this many fish will be here next year, when the Drew lab returns. Nagigi’s reef is threatened by overfishing, but like reefs around the world it is also feeling the squeeze of rising ocean temperatures, rising acid levels, and facing the threat of catastrophic bleaching events that leave coral white and dead. The threats are significant, but not insuperable. Not yet.

Near the end of the dive, Drew and Erin spot a white-tip reef shark. A good omen. A sign of a healthy reef.

Overlooking the reefs of Fiji

Overlooking the reefs of Fiji

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