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Mapping an ocean reserve at Cloud Break

Koordinates Customer Experience Manager Anne Harper helped map out the new Kurukuru Ocean Reserve in Fiji

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Posted by Anne Harper
May 4th, 2016

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At the end of April, Koordinates Customer Experience Manager Anne Harper travelled to Fiji to help map out the new Kurukuru Ocean Reserve – a reserve around the world famous Cloud Break.

Working with an all-volunteer team, Anne spent the week wrangling geospatial data in QGIS, working with local stakeholders, and diving in the gorgeous coral reefs.

Like others working on spatial projects around the world, Anne had her challenges in finding, accessing and using the data she needed. But her story is also a fascinating example of the sorts of projects that can be enabled when we solve the problem of making data more accessible.

We chatted with Anne to learn more about her amazing week.

For those of us that don’t surf, what is Cloud Break?

Cloud Break is a super famous, world class, top-ten globally rated surf break. Visitors come from all over the world to visit Fiji to surf this break, so the energy and excitement in the area is absolutely amazing.

In Fijian, Cloud Break is known as kurukuru mai lagi – or thundercloud. When the wave gets proper big, a cloud hangs over that can be seen for miles!

What else is special about Cloud Break?

The waves break on a coral reef. It’s the shape of the reef, combined with the climate and currents, that create these incredible waves. Coral is a living structure, providing habitat and nutrients – which in turn result in a diverse ecosystem. Hence all the beautiful reef fish (and all the divers and snorkelers).

The key word here is ecosystem: the coral, fish and waters are all interdependent. We want to keep that system strong, healthy and resilient.

The area is also really important for the local economy, with twenty operators helping surfers, snorkelers, divers and ocean lovers enjoy the environment.

So what exactly were you doing over there?

The team was made up of enthusiastic volunteers: Sam Judd from Sustainable Coastlines, Ian Muller from Surf Fiji, Tammie Leong from Media Design School – and myself, from Koordinates!

We were working to define the boundaries of a proposed ocean reserve, meet with key agency stakeholders and find datasets to help us design the boundary – such as submerged reefs that you cannot see from imagery, existing reserve boundaries and biodiversity information.

Why is this work so important?

The reef is fragile, and it – along with the existing marine life – needs to be able to respond to what we’ve called shocks and stressors.

Potential shocks include coral bleaching and cyclones. Cyclone Winston, a recent category 5 Hurricane that slammed Fiji, and was stronger than anything the country had seen before. Stressors on reefs include El Niño, overfishing and tourism. Boats visiting the area also drop anchors if there are no moorings.

To make this reef strong, healthy and resilient, we need to protect and improve existing biodiversity. And this is why we’re working to create this reserve.

This reef is also key for the Fijian surfing economy. Tourism brings in 37% of Fiji’s GDP, so it is critical for the local economy that it is well managed and healthy.

How important was data to the project?

At the early stages on a project like this, it’s critical to define a boundary of the proposed reserve to show stakeholders where and what we are talking about.

Defining the boundary can be difficult to do – though we were lucky to find an atlas for marine protected areas. With this data we soon found there were two massive marine reserves close by! This was incredible, as locals to the area didn’t actually know the reserves existed – which meant they were still being used for commercial and local fishing.

Wow – how come the locals didn’t know about the existing reserves?

They hadn’t been told! No one in the area seemed to know about them – and they definitely didn’t have access to the data showing where the reserves were.

In fact, the data had been published was in a proprietary GIS format. To use it you need to have the skills, software and knowledge and a reason to download a GIS dataset of global marine protected area (MPA) boundaries. And obviously, for most people, this is all pretty unlikely.

This information helped us realise that the local conservation and government agencies needed help with a management framework. Uncovering this altered the course of our project, which grew from defining the reserve boundary to a wider funding and framework approach. We already knew a funding model and management framework were important – but now we had hard evidence.

It sounds like the locals had some concerns about the reserves?

It was definitely a concern to them. There was a concern that, by restricting fishing in such a large area, the reserve would seriously impact their lifestyle, economy and food source. Fishing is a critical food source, and is also really important to the local culture.

The good thing about marine reserves is that they can actually lead to more fish in surrounding areas – that is, they can boost other fishing spots. This is because either fish swim out or have lots of fish babies that swim away.

We can leave these other areas as non-reserve so locals can still have great spots to fish the spillover. We can also advocate for funding to support new initiatives in the local economy. It’s only right that, if locals give up their fishing rights, they should be paid.

What other datasets did you use?

The other key dataset we sourced was from the Fijian Ministry of Lands and Mineral Resources. They kindly gave us a reefs and locality dataset. This dataset showed us where the submerged reefs lay so we could clearly delineate where the outer boundary could go.

Before we had access to this data, we had reefs half in and half out of the reserve – and this would obviously be confusing for anyone fishing in the area. Using this dataset, we adjusted the boundary to include all of the reef.

What are you going to do with the framework for the reserve?

We believe in open and accessible data, we will share our marine framework IP and are using open source software QGIS. The imagery we used is from Bing basemap.

What’s next for the project? Anymore trips to Fiji on the horizon?

The local agencies involved are working really hard and want these reserve to flourish, but don’t have the tools. Our team is helping to create a management framework and funding model to ensure this marine protection works. We’re also figuring out how other technologies might support the reserve, including drones and apps to report illegal fishing. Most importantly, we’re helping with stakeholder engagement and training.

I would love to get back to Fiji soon (pending leave approval of course). Wonderful people and incredible waters! Future visits will involve talking to stakeholders further about the technology and datasets that can help form this framework…and, of course, spending time in the ocean!