The next day we set off for Beqa, an island six nautical miles offshore, to meet Sefano Katz. An Israeli by way of Australia, Mr. Katz is a marine biologist and an expert in coral ecosystems. He arrived in Fiji three years ago with the nonprofit group Pacific Blue Foundation to help the locals on Beqa preserve their reef, which is 10 miles wide and one of the largest in Fiji.
He lives in a village of about 200, where he teaches children about composting and restoring mangrove forests, which help protect the coastline from erosion caused by storm surge. He works with the elders to improve the sewage treatment so that polluted water doesn’t seep into the ocean. Villagers are also removing the crown-of-thorns starfish, which eat coral, from the reef.
Mr. Katz said he focuses on steps the villagers can take on their own rather than broad concepts like fighting climate change. He pointed to a study that showed that 48 percent of the damage to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia was from tropical storms and cyclones, and another 42 percent from crown-of-thorns starfish, whose population has exploded because of an increase in phosphorus runoff from sewage, and other issues. This, he said, was similar in Fiji.
“People protect what they understand,” he said. “That’s the way to make change.”
Mr. Katz took us to meet Filipe Kirikirikula, the 60-year-old head of the council of elders. We sat outside his home in the middle of the well-kept village by the beach. He supported Mr. Katz’s mission, which he said required changing age-old habits. “Most of the people just abuse the environment,” he said. “It’s quite difficult to teach them about conservation. People here have their own freedom.”
The days of going out on the reef with a spear to catch dinner were disappearing, he said. So he supported a plan to create an area to raise clams and fish that would be protected from poachers. It would also repopulate the reefs, which in turn would attract more divers who could be charged a fee, he said.
As the afternoon waned, Mr. Katz took us back to the mainland on his boat. Beqa, which legend has it, is home to the Fijian shark god, Dakuwaqa, faded from view as we skipped over the waves and around the swells.
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