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How the Marine Aquarium Trade Benefits Fijians Field Report by Ret Talbot
In traveling the country speaking about wild collection of marine aquarium animals in developing island nations, I have found hobbyists are very interested in understanding where the animals they keep originate. More importantly, a large number of hobbyists with whom I have spoken during presentations to local reef clubs and at major aquarium events like MACNA and Reefapalooza are interested in knowing how their purchasing power affects fishers and other villagers in places like Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji. As such, I thought it might be interesting for Blue Zoo News readers to understand the way the marine aquarium fishery works here in Fiji in regard to its impact on Fijians.
In Fiji, the marine aquarium fishery works within the context of the qoliqoli (pronounced "guli-guli", I am told) system. After interviewing a wide range of people from Fijian fishers and Fisheries Division representatives to international operators of export facilities like Walt Smith International, the most common working definition of a qoliqoli I came across was “a traditional fishing ground.” More specifically, it is an area where a social unit of Fijians—anything from a simple family group to a collection of clans or tribes (known as a yavusa)—has traditional customary rights. In some cases, a qoliqoli may extend all the way from the mean high water mark to the outer boundaries of fringing reefs. There are 410 qoliqolis in Fiji.
While the qoliqoli system has been turned into a confusing political issue in recent years, the Fiji Fisheries Act recognizes members of a qoliqoli possess exclusive use rights of the qoliqoli. The Permanent Secretary of Fisheries and Forests, Commander Viliame Naupoto, has been clear, however, it is a “use right” and not an “ownership right.” Many indigenous Fijians disagree.
Whether the customary rights holders possess actual ownership rights over their qoliqoli or simply exclusive use rights, a marine aquarium operator (or any other non-villager who wants to fish the qoliqoli either for food or expor) must first secure access to the qoliqoli from the customary rights holders, not the government. An exporter such as Walt Smith International might gain access to a qoliqoli by paying a lump sum—generally referred to as a “goodwill”—payment up front, followed by regular payments to the chief or chiefs within the qoliqoli based on revenue generated by collection from that qoliqoli. According to some people I interviewed, the particulars of the arrangement are often specific to the individual agreement reached between an operator and the chief or chiefs of a qoliqoli. For example, some operators pay a fixed monthly fee irrespective of collection amount.
So what does this look like in terms of dollar figures? According to a 2005 report, Walt Smith International paid $2,000 up front to Vitogo and Naviti chiefs in exchange for an annual permit to collect marine aquarium animals and live rock in their qoliqolis. In this case, Walt Smith International used local collectors who earned, on average, $250 per week. In addition, the chiefs were paid a reported $20,000 in monthly installments throughout the year as a proportion of gross revenue. The reported export value from these qoliqolis was $6 million for that year.
Based on my own interviews, Walt Smith International currently pays a flat annual sum to
Vitogo and Naviti ($10,000 and $7,000 respectively) for collection of fishes and corals only (live rock collection occurs elsewhere now). Collection in these qoliqolis is presently carried out by Walt Smith International divers, not local fishers.
The qoliqoli system is, as already mentioned, politically charged, but the way it regulates marine aquarium collection in Fiji insures that local villagers benefit directly from the trade. Of course if collection is not sustainable, then the negative impact in a qoliqoli could far outweigh the income generated by the trade, but in my experience to date that is not the case. In some situations the qoliqoli system is being used as a conservation tool by setting up the qoliqoli as a no-take zone for certain species or all species.
As one person close to the marine aquarium industry said to me today, “a qoligoli can work for [sustainability] or against it.” Stay tuned for the next installment, where I’ll look at collection impacts and how the reef resources within the qoliqoli are managed.