Fiji: Hunting for a good cause

By Richard Moore

For the sake of conservation, Richard Moore goes hunting in the waters off Fiji.
Teams of resort staff and volunteers from among the guests head out each day to under-threat reefs to physically remove the creatures. Photo / 123RF
Teams of resort staff and volunteers from among the guests head out each day to under-threat reefs to physically remove the creatures. Photo / 123RF

It was a very strange hunt to say the least.

The prey was in its element, a fearsome beast with multiple ways to defend itself physically - including spikes and poison - as well as inbuilt defensive traps that would slow down Indiana Jones in his prime.

To make matters worse this foe can wreak environmental harm in fragile ecosystems and shows no mercy in its desire for self-preservation. It is nature's equivalent to a trigger for nuclear war with annihilation of its surroundings a key threat.

Sound a little over the top? Not really when you consider the enemy was a crown of thorns starfish.

In a balanced eco-system, the crown of thorns is surprisingly beneficial, dealing to fast-growing corals that can block marine channels and take over from slower varieties.

The hunt is on for the crown of thorns starfish. Photo / 123RF
The hunt is on for the crown of thorns starfish. Photo / 123RF

But in the waters off Fiji, where commercial fishermen have pillaged stocks of the predators that keep the starfish under control - such as the hump-headed wrass, puffer fish and grouper - the population of the pest has exploded.

And other creatures that keep the destructive critter at bay - the triton's trumpet and giant clams - have also been exploited for their shells and have been unable to keep the crown of thorns at bay. This could be disastrous for the Yasawa's economy as 90 per cent of the islands' liquid income comes from tourism and the tourists who visit to snorkel, dive and enjoy the beautiful reefs of the area.

At the Barefoot Manta resort on Drawaqa Island in the Yasawas, Dan Bowling and Heather Pacey lead the marine biology team in a daily effort to try to reduce the menace.

Teams of resort staff and volunteers from among the guests head out each day to under-threat reefs to physically remove the creatures.

I join in on the hunt at North Botera reef, about 5km from the resort, and, using snorkelling gear, act as a spotter for the divers.

It is a really enjoyable way to contribute to a worthwhile cause.

Swimming over the reef with mask and fins on you are told to look out for the tell-tale signs of crown of thorns predation - patches of bleached coral, which has been destroyed by the starfish.

The way in which the coral polyps are killed is not pleasant and is just one more reason to dislike the nasty crown of thorns.

The starfish's stomach distends through its mouth to cover an area of coral about the size of itself.

Then it secretes enzymes that liquefy the polyps, so it can drink them like soup.

One starfish can destroy up to 10 square metres of coral a year. No wonder it is such a menace in big numbers.

Finding the starfish isn't an easy task for a beginner. They hide in crevices amid their victims-to-be, and it is only after you have seen a couple that you start to recognise them more easily.

They are mean-looking and you can just tell from the vicious venomous spikes protruding from them that they are the bad guys of the reef.

The Yasawa Islands. Photo / 123RF
The Yasawa Islands. Photo / 123RF

Even armed with an angled steel rod you need to be careful removing the starfish, as if a female's skin is punctured it will release 50 million eggs to saturate the area with new versions of itself. If it is killed a similar explosion occurs.

And when split in half the problem is doubled as one beast becomes two. So the hunters carefully pull them out of the coral and place them in bags to be taken to the surface.

The spikes can prick skin through the carry sacks leaving painful, infected punctures that hurt for days.

Their remains need to be disposed of carefully - on land so they won't reproduce - and away from plants as their extreme salt levels are toxic.

The resort staff bury them in shallow sandy graves, measuring them for population records before they are unceremoniously dumped into the hole.

Marine biologist Bowling says with a slight wry smile that some people say a few words over them as they are being covered.

"If they come back, we hope it is as angel fish."



Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Fiji from Auckland with daily return fares starting from $318.


A 14-night Yasawa Islands Cruise starts at $1499pp.

To find out more about volunteering, contact


Top 5 places for a Fiji beach break

• Denarau is a popular pick with Kiwi travellers and only a stone's throw from Nadi. With world-class resorts, shopping, bars, restaurants and a championship golf course, Denarau has everything you need for a brief getaway.

• Further afield, the Coral Coast is home to many resorts and some of the best beaches and snorkelling on mainland Fiji. There are plenty of other activities, including rafting, golf and caving.

• An emerging destination, the Pacific Coast is known as the "Adventure Capital of Fiji". As well as pristine beaches, the region boasts adventure activities such as ziplining and whitewater rafting.

• For a true Fiji island escape, you can't look past the Mamanuca Islands. Here, there really is an island for every type of traveller. After a short boat ride from Denarau, you could be snorkelling among beautiful coral reefs or enjoying a cocktail by the pool.

• After the ultimate Fiji beach escape? From small, all-inclusive resorts to luxurious, authentically Fijian accommodation, you'll find it in the Yasawa Islands. Located beyond the Mamanucas, the journey is worth it to relax on gorgeous beaches or explore coral reefs abundant with sea life.

More information: Freephone 0800 30 31 32

- NZ Herald

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