Climate change is threatening the livelihoods of Fiji's fisherwomen

Across remote, coastal areas of Fiji, women play a crucial role in sustaining both food and income security. But, they say, their livelihoods are now being threatened by the impacts of climate change.

Sera Baleisasa of Namuaimada village has been harvesting nama for the past decade.

Sera Baleisasa of Namuaimada village has been harvesting nama for the past decade. Source: SBS News/Abbie O'Brien

Growing off the northern coast of Fiji's largest island, Viti Levu, is a unique, edible species of seaweed, known as nama.   

The marine delicacy is crucial to the livelihoods of those in Namuaimada Village - in the northeast of Viti Levu - and its women, who dominate the industry. 

"All the women [fish] for nama. It is the main source of income in our village," Sera Baleisasa says.

"We get up early in the morning - it depends on low tide. We go by boat, we fetch our nama and we come back. We spend four hours in the sea."

Each week, Nancy Tataba makes the three-hour journey to Suva to sell the nama.
Source: SBS News/Abbie O'Brien

For the past 30 years, the women of Namuaimada have made almost daily trips out to the reef flats. For hours, they wade through the shallow, pristine waters, collecting kilos of the seaweed in large potato sacks.

Most women will then make the three-hour journey south to the capital Suva by bus, to sell their produce at a sprawling fresh fruit and vegetable market. 

"I spend two to three days in Suva and come back on Saturday night," fisherwoman Nancy Tataba says. 

"I like it because it brings me money."

Indigenous Fijians have a long tradition of collecting and consuming different species of seaweed. Nama, also known as sea-grapes, is one of the most common species harvested for consumption and sale in Fiji. It is often soaked in coconut milk and served in salads with fresh tuna flakes, tomato and onion.

The nama is typically soaked in coconut milk and served with fresh tuna.
Source: SBS News/Abbie O'Brien

Two years ago, Ms Baleisasa took on a new client. 

"I sell nama at IGA supermarkets. I earn good money. [It's] better than selling at the market," she says. 

Marine Biologist Alani Tuivucilevu works for Women in Fisheries Network Fiji, an NGO set up to recognise and value the contributions women make in the fishing industry. She says Namuaimada Village is heavily dependent on revenue from nama fishing, but increasingly supplies are dwindling.  

"Most of the women, they get at least FJD$300 ($192) a week, which is a lot for the average family living in a village.

"[But] some of the exchanges that I’ve been having with the women within this village is that as time goes by, they have to go further out to sea to harvest the nama. So, this in itself is a great challenge for them."

Ms Tuivucilevu believes climate change is driving the decline. 

"Temperature increases and rising sea levels. Nama is known to be very sensitive to heat change."

The women of Namuaimada village spend around four hours on the reef harvesting the nama.
Source: SBS News/Abbie O'Brien

Research shows the world's oceans are simmering, with their average temperatures pushed higher each year by human-induced global warming. Pacific nations emit a tiny fraction of the world's greenhouse gases, yet the region is among the most vulnerable to climate change.

The impacts of rising sea levels, coastal erosion and intense storm surges are felt acutely across Fiji. Creeping tides are already threatening coastal villages, with some communities forced to move inland to higher ground.

But the Fijian attorney-general Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who is also the minister for climate change, stressed the challenges confronting the nation are "not only about sea level rises."

"It's also about erratic weather patterns. Cyclone season does always concern us because we are getting more than our share of cyclones now," he says.

For the past two years, Sera Baleisasa has been supplying nama to supermarkets in Suva.
Source: SBS News/Abbie O'Brien

Scientists blame an increase in the frequency and intensity of cyclones on climate change. 

"We've had 13 cyclones since 2016. One of them wiped off one-third of the value of our GDP within 36 hours," Mr Sayed-Khaiyum says.

Cyclone Yasa made landfall on Fiji's main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu as a category 5 storm on 17 December 2020.

Osee Navuaku, the Namuaimada Village headman, says his community was among the hardest hit. 

"This area was the worst affected. Around 56 houses [were] fully damaged, and 36 partly damaged."

On top of that, the village's main source of revenue dried up.

Ms Baleisasa says when a cyclone hits, it can take six months for the seaweed to grow back, resulting in significant financial disruption. 

"When the cyclone comes  - all the nama is gone. It destroys our source. We face big problems if all the nama is gone."

The extreme weather events are detrimental to Fijian women who depend on the reef as both a source of food and income.

Namuaimada Village was lashed by Cyclone Yasa in December 2020.
Source: SBS News/Abbie O'Brien

Professor Aliti Vunisea, from the University of the South Pacific, specialises in gender issues in fisheries in Fijian communities. 

"Women in Fiji are the dominant fishers," she says. 

"They have a lot of traditional knowledge, and food security is highly dependent on the activities of women. 

"When women can’t fish, that impacts on the family food security, and it also contributes to household income. They can’t earn money as they used to, [and] they have to look for alternatives." 

Women in Fiji are the dominant sellers of crustaceans, molluscs and seaweed, with many fishing for household needs and selling the surplus, according to research by the Women in Fisheries Network. 

Ms Tuivucilevu, from the Women in Fisheries Network Fiji, says despite the critical role women play in the fishing sector, their contributions are persistently undervalued and under-researched.

Alani Tuivucilevu works for the Women in Fisheries Network Fiji.
Source: SBS News/Abbie O'Brien

She says in order to inform policy development and implement adaptation measures, more data must be collected on women's participation in fisheries.

"We can only address [the issues] if it is documented, which hasn't been done yet"

Ms Tuivucilevu and her colleagues at the Women in Fisheries Network Fiji are working to raise the profile of women in the sector, with the hope it will lead to policies that strengthen their voice and address their needs.

"Our aim is to lift recognition for these women and their contribution to the economy and when you [do that] you empower women in society." 

Published 4 January 2022 at 5:05pm
By Abbie O'Brien
Source: SBS News