Before joining the team here at Projects Abroad in Fiji, I’ll admit that I knew very little about mangroves, never mind that they are a habitat in their own right. It therefore came as a surprise to find out that the habitat and niches that they create are critical for supporting many juvenile marine species, of which sharks are the major focus of this particular conservation effort.
My very first ‘Mangrove Monday’ threw me straight into the mix. I found myself out in the purpose built nursery at the back of the Projects Abroad villa, barefoot, muddy, sweaty and loving life. My first introduction to a mangrove propagule confronted me with half a soil-filled Fanta bottle housing a delicate plant with brilliant green leaves. My arrival had been at a climactic point of a large ongoing project, current volunteers, and some now gone, had been working tirelessly towards. This Mangrove Monday required us to harvest 5000 mangrove propagules from our nursery. These seedlings had been collected previously and cultured in the nursery for 8-12 weeks to maximize the chance of growing a robust propagule with an established root system most likely to survive the planting process and reach a mature tree. The afternoon was hard work, especially in the midday sun, but the atmosphere was excited and everyone knew that their efforts would be fruitful in the form of the Big Plant the following week. With the music and conversation, the time flew by and before long we had our five-hundredth bundles of 10 mangroves signifying that we had reached our target of 5000 propagules.
In the meantime, the following Monday saw us revisiting a school where on a previous trip we had begun constructing a small nursery housing approximately one hectare of seedlings. Due to expansion of the school, the nursery had been dismantled and therefore required rebuilding and replenishing the propagule population.
Thursday the 16th of June was the big day. We set off at 9am and journeyed to the decided location to plant the 5000 propagules that had been so carefully propagated and nurtured in our nursery. The work was made light due to the collective enthusiasm of the locals that turned out to help us. At the end of the day, the gravity of our achievement was obvious due to the vast area of beach that was now speckled with ordered rows of newly planted Mangrove trees. I would love to return one day a few years from now to see how the landscape and wildlife will have adapted, hopefully for the better, with a new mangrove rain forest.
The next stage in our Big Plant operation was repopulating the Projects Abroad Mangrove nursery. In order to achieve this we had to venture out to the forest near Rampur School with sacks to collect as many seedlings as possible. The staff had taught us well, holding a seminar explaining the basic biology and the species of Mangroves that are found along the coastal regions. We were specifically after as many seedlings from the Black or Red Mangrove species, as these trees are able to populate the salt-rich soil found along coastal estuaries. Much of the morning was spent hanging out of trees and wading in small estuaries trying to reach that elusive seedling. The satisfaction came at the moment you realized that it was no longer possible to lift your sack-full of seedlings. The grand total came in the region of 7000 picked seedlings – enough to replenish those lost by the Big Plant, and then some! Once we had returned to Ventura the biggest struggle was sourcing enough empty containers to hold and store the massive seedling haul!
I sit here at the start of my fourth week here at Ventura, part of this crazy shark-obsessed family, shocked at how fast my time has flown. Tomorrow will likely be my last dig-in down in the Mangrove nursery which is a sad thought, but I also can’t believe how much I have been involved with solely related to Mangrove conservation in this same time. I signed up to this project with the slightly selfish goal of becoming a better scuba diver; never did I think that my whole outlook on how my actions affect the health of the environment would be so radically altered. One person’s choices really can make a difference and their passion for conservation is contagious.
The Project’s long-term plan to turn Pacific Harbor into a carbon-neutral town, in collaboration with Mangroves for Fiji and other organizations really is achievable based on what I’ve witnessed and been a part of. In fact, at the rate the enthusiasm is growing and the amount of propagules that are being planted; I won’t be surprised if years from now I read somewhere that Projects Abroad has made Fiji the first carbon-neutral country.