71% of Everything
Lines and wires twist and protrude around my body as I snap the many buckles into place. My vision narrows as the mask skews my view, seeing the world now through fogged eyes. Standing I feel the weight of the tank as I shuffle inelegantly towards the edge of the boat. I look out across the horizon and step forward plunging into the blue water. A brisk surge of cold-water rushes around me before my heavy gear becomes weightless, precise. My view clears. As if skydiving I plummet towards the ocean floor. Time slows under the metronome of each breath.
The ocean stretches out before me in all directions as I float weightless, a guest for an hour in this underwater world. I expect to see hundreds of fish, sharks, dolphins, hard and soft corals.
Sadly with each dive I increasingly find patches of dying bleached coral, and only handfuls of fish; we have been bad guests. After almost every dive in a new area or country, local people and instructors tell me how different it was a year or even six months ago. The scary thing is the degree of change that is spoken about in only a six-month period and the frequency I was told this.
I’ve been diving and teaching diving for many years and wanted to ask Fijians how they have seen the ocean change. “If I put the damage from one to ten, I’d say eight. That's how bad the change is,” says Appi, a Fijian scuba instructor who has been diving since 1992.
While the increasing damage to the ocean affects everyone who loves diving, the threat it poses for local people who have depended on the ocean for their livelihoods for many generations is acute. “Ah yeah, plenty of changes,” one fisherman from Nandi reveals. “Before there was a lot of fish, and now not much. It’s getting harder and harder.”
Quite foolishly perhaps I expected the people I spoke with to profess a deeper connection to the sea as if it would almost be a part of them. But what I found was that people see it very much as a business and a means of survival. “Personally the ocean is like our livelihood, our bread and butter,” one fisherman from Suva explains. “The ocean is where we go fish. It’s what we depend on. Without the ocean I don't know how we’ll earn our living.”
One of the greatest concerns raised by fisherman was the rise in food and fuel costs, while wages have remained the same. “Before fuel was 1 dollar a litre and now it is 2 dollars a litre, but wages have not gone up,” one fisherman from Nandi bemoans. “Before you could get 60 dollars a week and fish was 5 dollars. Because the cost of fuel rose, [fishermen] had to put up the price. If fish costs 50 dollars and your wages are 60 dollars, how are you going to buy rice and sugar, or anything else? Ten years ago 1 litre of juice was 1 dollar. The same juice now costs nearly 5 dollars, and wages are the same.”
In addition to rising fuel costs, another fisherman states that it costs them 1,000 dollars for a licence to be able to fish: “We have this boat, but sometimes there are no fish. We had a small tsunami [in 2016]. It spoilt the ocean.” Many fisherman also say they are having to travel further out to sea to find fish, which increases costs and is also more dangerous. “Before you used to go one or two hours [out to sea] but now we have to go four hours, so that costs us more expense, more days we have to stay in the sea”
Overfishing is a concern raised by many, with one fisherman telling me sharply that there are “too many boats”. A common complaint is that foreign vessels are compounding the problem: “Before there were no Chinese boats, no Korean boats. Now there are plenty of Chinese boats coming wanting to fish. There is not much breeding going on.”
In the Pacific, sea cucumber is the most valuable marine export after tuna. “When the weather is good we always go far [out to sea] where we have not been before and then the catch is good,” says one local businessman who acts as a go-between for local fishermen and Chinese companies interested in sea cucumbers. “But if the weather is bad we can’t go far distances.”
The high profitability of this industry however has led to overexploitation. One taxi driver from Taviuni worries that there would soon be nothing left for local people whose livelihood depend on sea cucumbers. Furthermore, sea cucumbers play an important role in filtering sediment and recycling nutrients back into the food chain. I don't feel it should be left to people who are thinking merely of survival and where the next pay cheque is coming from to tackle the problem.
Fijians are extremely generous and have an openness and kindness that is embodied by huge smiles that you are greeted with as you move around the beautiful picturesque islands. But the beauty and smiles are hiding many problems. Globally, the oceans connect us all together, and how we treat them affects everyone.
“The ocean is everything to us,” says Appi.