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Fiji Coral Reefs Project

Case Authors

Rebecca Gruby, Duke University, and Leila Sievanen, Heather Leslie and Tara Gancos Crawford, Brown University

Download PDF of Comprehensive Case Study


Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu are reefs in Fiji, an island archipelago encompassing more than 300 islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. Most of Fiji’s growing population lives on or near the coast on the two islands that comprise the majority of the country’s land area: Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu reefs, located between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, and in the northern section of Vanua Levu, respectively, are seen by many as having “immense natural value.” Cakau Levu is the third longest barrier reef in the world and the Vatu-i-Ra passage contains additional healthy barrier reefs. These areas are considered repositories of globally significant biodiversity and nationally important tourism activities.

In 2004, the Wildlife Conservation Society-Fiji, World Wildlife Fund-South Pacific Program, Wetlands International-Oceania and communities of Macuata and Kubulau concluded that traditional resource management practices, government policies and other initiatives could not adequately protect the ecosystems encompassing Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu in the face of intensive coastal farming and forestry practices, growing demand for fish, and declining fisheries resources.

In 2005, in response, the foregoing groups initiated an ecosystem-based management approach to conservation and management of these areas. The ultimate goal of this project, termed Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu Reefs Seascape Project, is “to preserve the functional integrity of the Vatu-i-Ra and Great Sea Reef Seascapes to sustain biodiversity, fisheries and intact linkages between adjacent systems, thereby enhancing ecosystem-scale resilience to disturbance from land and sea and improving quality and abundance of marine resources for Fiji’s people and economy.”

The main strategy of this project has been to work at the community level to implement science-based networks of marine and terrestrial protected areas. While the vision of the project is at the “seascape scale” and includes adjacent watersheds, the project activities focus on the customary fishing ground (qoliqolis) and associated upland areas at two sites on Vanua Levu, which are seen by project partners to be ecologically representative of the wider seascape.

MEBM Attributes

Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu Reefs Seascape Project is conducting ecosystem research and engaging a variety of stakeholders, including international non-government organizations, government agencies, scientists, and traditional community leaders, in establishing a network of protected areas that:

  • Is informed by biological and ecological understanding of ecosystem processes that sustain desired ecosystem services, namely fisheries (adaptive management).
  • Takes into account land-based influences on marine resources (complexity).
  • Takes into account traditional governance structures, cultural practices and knowledge, and socioeconomic concerns (balance/integration).


Mission and Primary Objectives


The overarching goal of the Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu Reefs Seascape Project is “to preserve the functional integrity of the Vatu-i-Ra and Great Sea Reef Seascapes to sustain biodiversity, fisheries and intact linkages between adjacent systems, thereby enhancing ecosystem-scale resilience to disturbance from land and sea and improving quality and abundance of marine resources for Fiji’s people and economy.”

During interviews, EBM partners stressed dual project goals of biodiversity conservation and food security, although to varying degrees, and expressed recognition that food security was the primary goal for participating communities.


To work toward the foregoing overarching goals, the project partners set out to achieve two specific objectives:

  • Implement seascape-scale marine management with full community engagement and using ecosystem principles at two case study sites at Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu reefs.
  • Obtain new knowledge to assist with understanding and managing coral reef seascapes and their adjacent watersheds.

While the initial project proposal envisioned a “seascape” scale, it was scaled back to two case study sites on Vanua Levu during the transition from planning to implementation because the two-year timeframe of the project was too short to undertake the seascape-scale work, as originally envisaged. Project partners note, the project’s focal areas in Kubulau and Macuata cover ecologically significant spatial scales of 260 and 1,344 square kilometers, respectively, and managers have not abandoned plans to work at the seascape scale in the future.

Key Parties

Lead Organizations

Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu Reefs Seascape Project was initiated in 2005 to conserve and manage marine ecosystems by working at the community level to implement science-based networks of marine and terrestrial protected areas.

The project was led by The Wildlife Conservation Society–Fiji in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund-South Pacific Program and Wetlands International–Oceania between 2005 and 2010:

  • Wildlife Conservation Society-Fiji (WCS) is an international non-government organization “committed to conservation of wild animals and wild places around the world. The WCS approach emphasizes scientific research, capacity-building, strong partnerships and local engagement." The WCS-Fiji country program was established in 2001.
  • World Wildlife Fund-South Pacific Program (WWF) is also an international non-government organization dedicated to stopping the degradation of the natural environment and creating a future in which people live harmoniously with nature through conservation of biological diversity, making sure natural resources are used sustainably, and pollution and wasteful consumption are curtailed. WWF has been active in the development of community conservation projects in Fiji since 1990.
  • Wetlands International-Oceania (WI-O) is an international non-government organization as well that works towards restoring and maintaining wetland ecosystems around the globe. In Fiji, WI-O is committed to promoting integrated landscape management from the beginning of catchment basins down to the ocean, including associated lagoons and reef habitats.

Key Parties

While the project is led by The Wildlife Conservation Society-Fiji (WCS) in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund-South Pacific Program (WWF) and Wetlands International–Oceania, a number of other organizations and groups participate including:

  • Fiji’s national departments of Fisheries, Forests, Tourism and Environment, Culture and Heritage and the Ministry of Health
  • The Kubulau and Macuata qoliqoli management committees
  • The University of the South Pacific
  • The Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area Network

Program Structure

Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu Reefs Seascape Project was initiated in 2005 to conserve and manage marine ecosystems by working at the community level to implement science-based networks of marine and terrestrial protected areas. 

Activities are primarily carried out by the field offices of the Wildlife Conservation Society-Fiji (WCS), World Wildlife Fund-South Pacific Program (WWF), and Wetlands International-Oceania (WI-O). WCS is primarily responsible for implementing project activities in the Kubulau district, while WWF is primarily responsible for project activities in Macuata province. In general:

  • WCS is responsible for marine biological surveys and monitoring and reserve design.
  • WWF carries out socio-economic surveys and community engagement.
  • WI-O carries out freshwater fish surveys and collects data on interconnectivity of freshwater, estuarine and nearshore marine systems.

The Marine Studies Program of University of the South Pacific (USP) was intended as a principle partner for the first phase of the project; however, USP was not included as a core partner for the second phase due to other time commitments. Project partners have been working with communities in Macuata and Kubulau to establish and build the capacity of qoliqoli management committees, comprised of traditional leaders and village representatives that serve as liaisons between EBM partners and communities and are responsible for making resource management decisions and plans.

  •  An Executive Committee was established during the second phase of the project to keep community partners and other interested parties informed of project activities. The Executive Committee is comprised of lead individuals from WCS, WWF, and WI-O. A full-time EBM coordinator was appointed and a memorandum of cooperation was signed between the three implementing organizations. EBM partners and the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Areas network (FLMMA) also signed a memorandum of understanding that details ongoing attendance at FLMMA meetings, as well as broader scale statements of support and engagement.
  • Kubulau’s Management Committee includes a chairman and representatives from each of the ten villages in the district. The functions of the Kubulau management committee are to: coordinate management activities identified in the district’s EBM plan; raise awareness of management rules and activities; coordinate enforcement; assess proposed resource use and development activities; provide information and advice on resource management and alternative livelihoods; organize training activities; liaise with stakeholders; manage and distribute funds; and monitor and report on implementation of the EBM plan.
  • Macuata’s Management Committee is comprised of traditional leaders and was set up in 2004, prior to EBM implementation. This group collects fees from fishermen licensed to fish in their qoliqoli, which help fund meeting costs and management plan development and implementation.

The management committees are seen as critical to the process of designating MPAs, building awareness, and gaining local support for them.  All final decisions must be approved by a council of chiefs (Manager). Furthermore, the project has established strong, functioning networks with relevant district and provincial governments, communities and qoliqoli committees, and national government departments including the Departments of Fisheries, Tourism and Environment, Culture and Heritage, and other NGOs.

Motivations for Initiating Effort

Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu Reefs Seascape Project was initiated in 2005 to conserve and manage marine ecosystems by working at the community level to implement science-based networks of marine and terrestrial protected areas.

The key motivation for undertaking this project included a desire to implement a more holistic and science-based approach to environmental management than pre-existing approaches. More specifically, EBM partners felt that revival of traditional management practices alone could not address new ecosystem threats and the Fiji Locally-Managed Marine Area network (FLMMA) approach needed to be scaled up to match the scale at which ecosystem processes operate.

Additionally, while EBM partners recognized that compliance, implementation, and a sense of local ownership were enhanced by the ‘socioeconomic basis’ of the FLMMA approach, they felt communities needed ecological information regarding functioning of coastal and marine ecosystems to guide decision-making such that reserve placement could be more effective in sustaining biodiversity and accomplishing other environmental objectives and community livelihood objectives.

Thus, a desire to integrate FLMMA strategies with larger science-based networks of protected areas served as the major impetus for the EBM project proposal.


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu Reefs Seascape Project was initiated in 2005 to conserve and manage marine ecosystems by working at the community level to implement science-based networks of marine and terrestrial protected areas. Project sites include the Cakau Levu reef bordering the province of Macuata and the Vatu-i-Ra channel bordering the district of Kubulau, both on the island of Vanua Levu. Both sites were identified as “globally important” sites in Fiji due to their perceived “uniqueness, endemism and high levels of diversity,” and they are considered by the partners to be ecologically representative of the wider seascape.

  • Project activities in Macuata are focused in four districts within the province where 5,313 people live in 37 villages. This population relies heavily on natural resources – including fish from their 1,344 square kilometer qoliqoli (traditional fishing ground) - for basic sustenance, shelter, and livelihood.
  • The Cakau Levu reef (Great Sea Reef) is the third longest continuous barrier reef system in the world and the longest and most complex reef system in the Fiji Islands. The extensive lagoon system bordering the coast of Macuata and Cakau Levu provides substantial fisheries resources and geophysical functions of shoreline stabilization and prevention of wave damage.
  • According to the EBM partners, the upland watersheds are extensively modified by land clearance for crops (in particular, sugar cane), settlements and logging, and much of the remaining forested area has been logged and is in a disturbed condition.
  • Kubulau is a district of the Bua province in southwest Vanua Levu. The total land area of the district is 97.5 square kilometers, and the associated qoliqoli covers 261.6 square kilometers. The district is comprised of ten villages containing 50 to 200 people each, with a total population of approximately 1,000.
  • The main sources of cash income for the seven coastal villages in Kubulau are fishing and copra production, while fishing and farming (cassava, taro, and kava) serve as the main livelihoods for the three inland villages.
  • A defining characteristic of the Fijian coast is strong local tenure. Approximately 90 percent of land in Fiji is owned by customary landowners, who hold land in communal title. In addition, Fiji’s coastal waters are “shared under a dual ownership in which the state owns the land beneath the sea while the Fijian tribal groups retain ownership of the customary fishing rights.”
  • The Fijian government plays a very limited role in managing inshore reef fisheries. Instead, exploitation of fisheries is largely regulated by the different, but closely related, social groups that hold rights to them. 


Project partners consider the primary driver of resource exploitation in the region to be the shift to a monetary economy, and while overfishing is considered a problem in both Macuata and Kubulau, they face different land-based threats. Three chief ecosystem forces and threats to Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu have been highlighted by EBM partners:

  • Loss of marine biodiversity through illegal longline and local over-fishing, and destructive fishing practices.
  • Destruction of coral reefs, rivers, and lagoon systems through siltation and nutrient enrichment (Macuata only).
  • Decline in coral reef health due to climate change.

Major Strategies

Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu Reefs Seascape Project employs a variety of strategies that include:

  • Feeding Science into Protected Area Planning Efforts: The main strategy for the EBM project in Fiji involves collecting biophysical and social data and using that information to craft recommendations to communities about protected area (marine and terrestrial) configuration and management.
  • Community Communications: WWF has employed a variety of communication methods in Macuata to promote community involvement in EBM activities and to explain management measures to community members. This is a critical element of the EBM effort necessitated by the geographically dispersed nature of communities of Macuata Province in Fiji and the fact limited communications infrastructure are present. Such methods include fundraising for travel expenses for community members to attend planning meetings; directly integrating discussions of EBM activities into provincial, district, and village meetings; and establishing a "Community Messaging" network that engages village leaders in the dissemination  of project information to each household in 37 villages.
  • Generating and Sharing EBM Science: The EBM projects at Kubulau and Macuata are intended to serve as pilots for EBM within the Indo-Pacific region. In addition, EBM partners are using EBM science to create “scientific rules-of-thumb” to communicate lessons learned to a wider audience through publications and sharing their experiences with audiences as workshops and conferences.
  • EBM Decision-Support Tools: Planning maps such as those that include “overlays of biological information and traditional ecological knowledge on readily available platforms such as Google Earth” and conceptual modeling diagrams and other visualization tools that help convey complex ecological ideas and oceanographic processes are useful in this context. WCS has relied heavily on the Miradi software program for monitoring and used Marxan software to design reconfiguration options for the protected area network in Kubulau.


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Social and biological outcomes of the protected area networks in Kubulau and Macuata are being monitored to evaluate progress over the period since initial baseline surveys were completed.

Partners are citing anecdotal evidence from fishermen that attest to “significant positive changes” since the marine reserves were established, which have been backed to a certain degree by increases in fish biomass observed outside protected areas.

Signs of success include the return of the endangered humphead wrasse (Chelinus undulatus) to areas they have been absent from for years, and bigger individuals of other fish species are being seen closer to shore.

The partnership has integrated all monitoring and evaluation activities into Miradi software program, and the Wildlife Conservation Society will continue to use this program to monitor Vatu-i-Ra after the EBM initiative has officially concluded.


Main outcomes of the Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu Reefs Seascape Project include:

Establishment of Marine Protected Area Networks

  • In Kubulau, 20 marine protected areas were established by local management communities, including three district marine reserves and 17 village tabu areas, covering more than 30 percent of the customary fishing ground.
  • In Macuata, World Wildlife Fund directed a community-based management planning process that led to a significant increase and reconfiguration of the existing protected area network to include 25 coastal and marine reserves and two forest reserves, covering more than 175 square kilometers. 

New Knowledge

An enhanced understanding of ecosystem-based management and conservation design and implementation has been obtained for tropical coral reef ecosystems and adjacent watersheds. EBM partners explain that a major outcome of their project is the production of scientific knowledge that can be applied broadly throughout Fiji and the region.

EBM science and lessons learned through this initiative are already being shared with the Fiji Locally Managed Marine Area network. Further, the biological and ecological research completed has informed the development of rules of thumb for protected area networks, which can be applied in similar tropical island contexts. In addition, this new knowledge has been shared through Fiji's Inaugural Conservation Science Forum, at international conferences such as the International Marine Conservation Congress, and through technical reports, guides and journal articles which can be accessed online at:

Finally, experience gained through communication efforts between project partners, customary leaders and community members are expected to enable better communication regarding resource management throughout the country in the future.

Protected Area Success

Partners are citing anecdotal evidence from fishermen that attest to “significant positive changes” since the marine reserves were established, which has been backed to a certain degree by increases in fish biomass observed outside protected areas.


Factors Facilitating Progress

Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu Reefs Seascape Project was facilitated by the following factors:

  • Traditional Tenure Arrangements: Traditional marine management structures and land tenure systems have contributed to EBM implementation because communities have a strong sense of ownership of the resources and, therefore, a vested interest in their long-term health.
  • History of Spatial Marine Management: Although there are important differences between the goals and management of traditional Fijian practices, such as tabus, and western-style marine protected areas, EBM partners note that Fijians’ longstanding traditional practice of spatial marine management of tabu areas facilitates community support for networks of protected areas.
  • Dependence on Natural Resources: Most Fijians are dependent on natural resources for subsistence use. According to EBM partners, this tight coupling between communities and environment in Fiji allows communities to perceive environmental degradation and motivates them to address it.
  • Pre-Existing Community Management Initiatives: EBM partners recognize EBM implementation and communication of EBM principles and science has been facilitated by the Fiji Locally Marine Management Area network, which was already in place.



Fiji’s Vatu-i-Ra and Cakau Levu Reefs Seascape Project has encountered the following challenges:

  • Existing Sector-Based Institutions and Agencies: EBM calls for a restructuring of the institutional landscape such that all agencies are integrated; however, this requires dramatic shifts in the perspective and operations of most organizations. All of the EBM project’s stakeholders are used to operating in a compartmentalized, sector-based framework that is difficult to change.
  • Merging EBM with Existing Managementand Community Priorities: The EBM project has encountered difficulties while trying to integrate EBM principles with pre-existing initiatives and community priorities. The EBM effort is trying to move towards a “hybrid management system” that brings “some more western type structures within the traditional management system,” and EBM requires a greater commitment by communities to biodiversity conservation.
  • Compliance and Enforcement: “Infringements” in the form of fishing and cutting down trees within protected area boundaries are taking place, but are expected to be mitigated with additional management planning and improved communication. Partners think such infringements are most often the work of people outside of participating communities.
  • Balancing Expectations: Balancing EBM project objectives and use of project resources with community expectations is another challenge. For example, surveying efforts have needed to allocate additional field time to building community relationships, and communities have expectations regarding livelihood alternatives.
  • Organizational Issues: The first phase of the EBM project was limited by staff transitions, a dearth in scientific leadership, and problematic relationships with the conservation community in Fiji.
  • Qoliqoli Ownership Issues - Anticipated Challenges of Scaling UpManagement: All of the protected areas established by this project have been set up within the context of a single fishing ground. It may be difficult to scale the effort up to encompass multiple fishing grounds.
  • Political Instability: Political instability in Fiji resulting from military takeover of the elected government in December 2006 has made it difficult to establish and maintain relationships with relevant government departments, mainly due to extensive shifts in personnel.
  • Broad Spatial Scale and Scope of Objectives: “The two-year timeframe of the project was too short to undertake the seascape-scale work as originally envisaged,” according to the 2007 Packard Report. The project focus was narrowed to the areas of Macuata and Kubulau.
  • Project Coordination: Coordinating different partners’ work programs turned out to be more difficult than anticipated, and project activities and outputs required more of the project team’s resources than was expected. Looking back, the project team realizes the importance of having a structured management approach developed from the onset and tracking progress throughout the project’s existence. This challenge was addressed in the project’s second phase by the creation of an Executive Committee comprised of lead individuals from each of the three core partners; appointment of a full-time EBM coordinator; and a memorandum of cooperation between the three implementing organizations.


Lessons Learned

Lessons from Pacific EBM projects were shared through the publication of an EBM Guide for the tropical western Pacific: Principles and practice of ecosystem-based management: A guide for conservation practitioners in the tropical Western Pacific. The lessons described below are extracted from this report, and thus represent lessons learned from the perspective of those implementing EBM:

  • Importance of Community-Based Management: To be successful, EBM efforts must uphold existing community-based structures and ensure local perspectives are considered, not only national and international ambitions. Long-term success of community-based resource governance is more likely when planning processes acknowledge and bolster the roles of traditional leaders while accommodating broad community involvement.
  • Need for Adaptive Management: Ecosystem management can be improved over time and able to respond to emerging challenges such as climate change through community-based adaptive management whereby local and traditional knowledge is combined with scientifically robust monitoring approaches and responsive decision-making processes.
  • Utility of Local and Traditional Knowledge: EBM provides opportunities to integrate local knowledge and expertise with existing and emerging scientific knowledge of ecosystem functions and processes. EBM efforts are well served by community knowledge and expertise.
  • Productive Partnerships: Management success is facilitated by collaborative alliances that bring together institutions with diverse expertise, skill sets, responsibilities and resources. Partnerships that harmonize and integrate management activities enhance efficiency and promote mutually accepted solutions to ecological issues.
  • Importance of Understanding Existing Institutions and Decision-Making Processes: EBM practitioners need to fully understand the context in which they are operating and must identify opportunities to connect their work to present organizations, policies, programs and management processes. In the Western Pacific, customary tenure is a major feature of natural resource management regimes; therefore, effective conservation must recognize and understand existing traditional and legal resource rights and decision-making protocols.
  • Successful Management Planning: For EBM to be effective, conservation targets and project goals must reflect the interconnected nature of ecosystems and their multiple natural, social, cultural and economic values. Goals and targets are best identified through collaborative planning processes that engage resource owners and users, experts and management agencies; provide opportunities for diverse stakeholders to convey priorities and anxieties; and integrate traditional ecological knowledge and scientific understanding of these systems. 
  • Using Science Effectively: Biological and biophysical datasets are seen as necessary to understand the complex nature of target ecosystems and inform design of reserve networks. Practitioners note that to ensure scientific recommendations are implemented, research needs to address prioritized management questions, including social and economic issues.
  • Protected Area Design: Protected area networks are seen as most effective, and resilient to climate change impacts, when areas are large, representative and connected. Practitioners note that it is important to acknowledge and work with existing governance and socioeconomic constraints because MPA network effectiveness in this region is contingent upon social acceptance within the customary marine tenure framework, and protected areas are most successful when they are situated within a broader ecosystem management system that offers protections outside of reserves.
  • Management Implementation: Participant responsibilities and timeframes for activities should be clearly articulated and mechanisms for periodic evaluation should be identified. Active efforts to promote compliance such as raising awareness of rules, monitoring, surveillance and enforcement are needed to ensure regulations are effective. Such activities can be resource intensive; therefore, it is important to identify sustainable funding sources and strategies.
  • Effective Means of Education and Communication: Education and communication are seen as important elements of EBM, especially programs that raise awareness of ecosystem values, threats and causal factors; promote behavioral or policy change; and build capacity to successfully implement management actions. In the Western Pacific context, important messages are usually communicated most effectively through casual gatherings, and it is important to allocate sufficient time and resources to such activities in project proposals and plans.
  • Project Monitoring: A program for ongoing monitoring of key indicators is seen as necessary to measure EBM effectiveness. Practitioners have found that EBM monitoring plans need to be directly linked to management targets and threats and include a variety of biological and socioeconomic indicators across all ecosystem types contained by the management area.
  • Utility of EBM Decision-Support Tools: Because many EBM decision-support tools were developed for application in developed countries, they may have limited applicability to the western Pacific context where technical capacity is lower, data is often scarce, and people are skeptical of computer-generated models, in some instances.
  • How to Scale up EBM: According to EBM practitioners, while EBM is a place-based approach, it is not solely about site-based conservation. EBM principles are applicable at larger spatial scales and can be incorporated into national and sub-national policies and programs. EBM practitioners argue that conservation practitioners in the Western Pacific can facilitate efforts to scale up EBM by conveying EBM principles, methods and results in the field; promoting integration of government policy and decision-making processes; encouraging policy and law reform that reflect EBM principles; and working in partnership with government agencies on program design and fundraising.


Website Links

Wildlife Conservation Society: Vatu-i-Ra Seascape, Fiji Webpage including facts, challenges, and WCS’s response:

Wildlife Conservation Society: Fiji’s Waters Webpage including facts, challenges, and WCS’s response:

Wildlife Conservation Society Fiji webpage with EBM resources for download:

WWF South Pacific Program Website:

Wetlands International Oceania Website: