By Alumeci Nakeke
Sakiusa Yavala, a retired teacher from Namarai Village in Ra, squinted his eyes as he tried to make out the silhouette on the horizon. Yes, it seemed to be the same fishing boat he had seen the day before with three other boats. It was anchored alone this time, inside the community fishing grounds, or qoliqoli, and he was certain they were not licensed to fish there.
"As the turaga ni koro (village headman) and fish warden, I had to take action," said Sakiusa, 68.
Namarai, like coastal communities across Fiji, are trying to better manage their decreasing marine resources, by limiting fishing in certain areas, called tabu or marine protected areas, and by establishing community restrictions on harmful gear, fishing times, and the number of fishers allowed in the fishing grounds.
As communities make these sacrifices, poachers are however trying to steal the benefits as fish decline across Fiji.
Sakiusa lives in his little settlement just a few minutes from the village by boat. That day, when he spotted the boat, he was on his way to take part in some community work at their local primary school.
"As soon as I arrived at the village I borrowed another boat and rounded up eight young men and another fish warden to captain the second boat. I told them it was likely we would arrest some people and they were needed for our safety, because poachers can be violent."
As a government-designated fish warden, Sakiusa also has the power to seize the boat, fishing gear and catch, if the individuals are fishing without permission from the community.
Sakiusa also asked the Police and the Fisheries departments for support before they left the shore.
As his boat cut through the water, Sakiusa could make out only one person in the poacher's boat. But as he got nearer they could see another person clambering in.
Sakiusa advised the second boat captain to cut the poachers off from the opposite side, if they should try to run. The two on the boat were trying to pull in the anchor while two other divers were still in the water. That's when Sakiusa's boat pulled up beside them.
"I asked the captain where the boat was from and he answered, Malake Island," said Sakiusa while at the same time jotting it down in his notebook.
The poacher neither had a boat master licence nor a fishing licence. As he questioned the boat caption, the violator begged forgiveness, promising not to do it again.
"I was so angry and told him off. We have had enough of this. Poaching is a continuous problem and heartache for us. While we are trying to protect our tabu area they have been stealing our resources, which we should survive on," he said.
Sakiusa and his team took the boat to shore and handed all their catch and fishing gear over to the fisheries officer and the police, who were waiting for them.
When the police interrogated the poachers they were able to charge them because the community had been so vigilant, says Nalawa station officer Inspector Koro Lesikimaloku, who is also in charge of the Namarai Police Post.
"That was possible through the efforts of the communities themselves," he said. "Although generally we would say the poachers committed a wrong by fishing in the tabu area but it was after digging further that we found they committed the offence we charged them with — using underwater equipment without a licence," he said.
The case was taken to court and the four offenders were fined $200 each and we thanked the community for playing their part in this, he said.
"At the moment we have another case pending. Our target was to see this case through to court and once that is done, we are satisfied and we know that it has given the communities a great relief that their efforts have not been in vain. This partnership is part of the Police's Duavata initiative," Insp Lesikimaloku said confidently.
Police's work did not end there as they approached the poachers' village meeting and told them that if it did not stop, there would be more people from the village ending up in court.
Insp Lesikimaloku said they were now working closely with stakeholders and communities across Ra to address poaching issues.
It's an encouraging story of government and communities working together to enforce community regulations, but unfortunately it's not a common story in Fiji. The Ra case is one of the very few cases in Fiji that police have been able to take the case up to court. In most instances cases would tend to rest with either police or fisheries because of inadequate information or a lack of interest in prosecuting fishing crimes.
That was the resounding complaint at annual meetings of the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area (FLMMA) network, which is made up of communities, Fisheries, iTaukei Affairs. NGOs, and USP, working together to better manage natural resources to meet community food and income needs.
For the past 15 years of FLMMA's existence in Fiji, poaching has been one of the major threats for communities trying to sustainably manage their marine resources.
Some communities are trying to find innovative solutions. Qoliqoli owners from the district of Tavua in the province of Ba have put in a condition in their fishing permits for all fishermen to assist their fish wardens by reporting and chasing any illegal fishermen in their qoliqoli.
Licensed fishermen have been complaining, as they are paying a fee for licences, and trying to respect community rules.
"It has been frustrating for us as licensed fishermen who have to feed our families and send children to school while poachers are coming in and not paying anything at all. We know all the boats that are licensed and it will be good to help this way as we are out at sea most of the time," said Satendra Muni, a fisherman from Tavua.
However, the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests is relooking the Fisheries Act Cap 158 through the review of some of the regulations that can be endorsed through the approval of its minister.
Despite all the struggles between poachers and communities, one bright spot is that Fijian hospitality remains strong. After Sakiusa hollered at and dragged the poachers to shore to be charged, his Fijian hospitality kicked in.
"After their reports were taken, we fed them," said Sakiusa.
* Alumeci Nakeke is communications officer for SeaWeb Asia Pacific.