Case Study

Fiji Nearshore Fisheries

Authors: Whitney Friedman and Sangeeta Mangubhai


 Fiji’s rich marine biodiversity is central to food security, livelihoods, and culture. Fijian nearshore fisheries have, thus far, shown resilience to marine heatwaves and increased intensity of tropical cyclones due to a combination of strong ecological and social factors. Fijian reefs have high biodiversity, biomass, and connectivity; these features have likely contributed to the observed recovery and resilience of its fisheries to climate-induced disturbances. Indigenous communities have strong ties and relationships, traditional ecological knowledge of marine species and habitats that contribute to their resilience to different types of disturbances.

System Overview

The primary participants in these fisheries are Indigenous (iTaukei) and non-Indigenous (e.g., Indo-Fijians) groups; however, access to fisheries resources and management rights differ widely between the two groups (Nand et al. 2021; Mangubhai et al. 2021). iTaukei communities have access rights to traditional fishing grounds that extend from the highwater mark to the edge of the reef (Mangubhai et al. 2019). At least 165 reef-associated fish species have been identified through fish market surveys with 29 species making up 90% of locally caught reef fish sold at markets (Prince et al. 2018, 2019). Marine and freshwater invertebrates are commonly harvested, with over 50 species identified in fish markets. Women and men both participate in nearshore fisheries, but generally access different habitats and in some cases, target different species. Women’s fishing activities contribute substantially to household food security in iTaukei communities; as women tend to fish for subsistence, and sell catch to supplement household incomes (Thomas et al. 2021). Further, the diversity of species targeted by women likely contributes to more stable sources of nutrition when compared to the patchier and weather-limited access to offshore fish.

Resilience Attributes and Linkages

Despite the devastating damage to both ecological assets and community infrastructure caused by severe tropical cyclones, strong community relationships and traditions (social capital), traditional ecological knowledge, past experiences, and resilience mindset enabled iTaukei communities to work together to rebuild local infrastructure, harvest traditional forest foods (that are more cyclone resilient), increased investment in subsistence farming and fisheries, and gain support through food sharing networks; collectively, these helped buffer against nutritional shortages (Dacks et al. 2020; Thomas et al. 2021, Ferguson et al. 2022). The return to fishing was less costly (and faster) for fishers (largely women), that relied on bamboo (bilibili) rafts and low-technology fishing gear, compared to those who had invested in boats and engines (largely men), with limited wealth and reserves to repair or replace boats and fishing gear (Chaston Radway et al. 2016). In contrast, Indo-Fijians in the small-scale fisheries sector had little social capital, including safety nets and networks, making them vulnerable to disasters (Mangubhai et al. 2021).

Sustained high sea-surface temperatures during the 2000 La Niña resulted in widespread coral bleaching with 40-80% loss of scleractinian corals throughout Fijian reefs (Lovell and Sykes, 2007). Despite this widespread loss, the majority of reefs recovered to pre-bleaching levels within 5 to 11 years; “suggesting that Fiji’s reefs are fairly resistant and resilient to these thermal stress events” (Mangubhai et al. 2019).

Category 5 Cyclone Winston caused mechanical damage to coral reefs up to 20-30m below sea surface; although the damage was patchy and highly variable between reefs (Mangubhai, 2016). Twelve months after the cyclone some reefs in the path remained denuded of coral, while others were showing new settlement and regrowth. Although there were no major changes to fish community composition, obligate corallivores including butterflyfish (Chaetodon baronessa) and tubelip wrasse (Labrichthys unilineatus) showed significant declines, most likely due to declines in coral cover; herbivore abundance increased immediately after the cyclone (Price et al. 2021). Five years post-Winston, some reefs and fish populations have recovered, faster-than expected, to pre-cyclone levels (Vierus 2021).


While fishing communities and ecosystems have withstood, rebuilt, temporarily transformed, and eventually recovered from several prior cyclones, it is not clear whether they will continue to be able to do so in the context of cumulative effects of multiple stressors increasing in frequency, intensity and overlap, as well as the differences in resilience among fishing communities. The evidence to date suggests that factors that limit resilience in this fishery include: cumulative effects of multiple stressors (e.g., cyclones, heatwaves, disease), overfishing, increased in land-based sources of pollution and sedimentation, and differences in access for different social groups.


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Photo: Women fishing from a bamboo raft in Fiji. Credit: Mike Robinson/Alamy