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How do you strengthen a country’s food systems while supporting its post-COVID-19 economic recovery and mitigating the impacts of climate change? The women of Muanaira in Fiji have a simple answer: farm oysters!
This story is part of a series dedicated to the collaboration between the Pacific Community (SPC) and New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), as part of the renewal of their multi-year partnership.
Oyster shells piling up in baskets, footsteps in the shallow, muddy waters, the voices of women chatting in the early morning light: we are on the delta of the Rewa River, not far from Suva, Fiji’s capital on the island of Viti Levu.
Walking over sharp shells in dense mangrove areas to harvest the oysters that cling to their roots is an activity traditionally performed by women from the neighbouring Muanaira community. It allows them to diversify their family’s diet, while increasing their income.
“Oysters are a key part of our life,” said Lanieta Tubuna from the women’s group. “They are used for consumption, for traditional purposes, and as a source of income when sold in Suva market as shelled oyster meat.”
But the lives of the women of Muanaira took a new turn in 2018, when a project implemented by the Fiji Ministry of Fisheries and the Pacific Community, with funding from New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), helped them move from collecting wild oysters to farming them.
“There are a lot of advantages of shifting from harvesting oysters to farming them,” explained Robert Jimmy, Aquaculture Adviser at the Fisheries, Aquaculture and Marine Ecosystems (FAME) division of the Pacific Community. “Not only does this project ensure greater sustainability of the activity, it also allows farmers to save time; instead of having to walk long distances to find wild oysters, they can always grow their oysters at the same place. When we observe the multiplicity of tasks done by the women of Muanaira, we realise that, for them, time is a precious commodity,” Jimmy said.
To help the community transition from wild oyster harvesting to farming, SPC and its partners started a South-South exchange programme: an oyster farmer from Mago Island, Fiji, attended a training course in Australia, a country with a long tradition of commercial aquaculture. Once back in Fiji, this farmer ambassador went to Muanaira to share what he had learnt and help the women start their own farming project. “That is when the funding from New Zealand kicked in,” Jimmy recalled. “We were able to purchase oyster baskets and help the community harvest wild spats (young oysters) for farming.”
SPC’s team provided the women with technical know-how to select the right spats, install the bags in which they grow in an area with enough current and clean the oysters after harvest to prepare them for market. The women of Muanaira were also provided with business skills to help them promote and sell their oysters.
According to Robert Jimmy, the women were excited and expressed tremendous interest in the project because it met the objectives they had set themselves to improve production.
“In terms of commercial potential, there is no competition between wild and farmed oysters. Farmed oysters’ shells are better formed, their flesh is uniform and bigger. When the women of the community were harvesting wild oysters, they could sell them for FJD 10 for a dozen. Now they sell farmed oysters for FJD 30 a dozen,” Jimmy said.
The women of Muanaira are not the only beneficiaries of this pilot project, in which other communities in Fiji and other countries in the region have shown a strong interest. Oyster farming provides a predictable source of nutrients and income for Pacific countries, which are extremely vulnerable to economic and climatic shocks such as cyclones, droughts and floods.
“Oyster farming is a relatively easy process, which can be implemented even in small communities,” he said. “By providing a predictable source of income that does not require external assistance to sustain, these communities can better withstand shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the economic consequences of climate change.”
In addition, shifting from harvesting to farming is a great way to help preserve coastal defences. The mangrove areas act like sponges in the face of storm surges, which are becoming more frequent and increasing in intensity due to climate change.
For Jimmy, the success of this project is that it does not seek to reinvent the wheel, but instead improves on what already exists. “Sometimes new funding sparks a completely new project that has to be innovative or turn the table upside-down. This was not the case with the MFAT funding for this project: we have been able to improve a traditional practice, with modern techniques. In my opinion, this is the most effective way for a project to continue in a sustainable manner,” he explained.
The future is exciting for oyster farming in Fiji. With more communities involved, the Fiji Ministry of Fisheries and SPC hope to set up a depuration facility, which will help the farmers clean larger amounts of oysters, ensure consumers that the product is clean and safe to eat and potentially exporting them in future.
Story written by Alexandre Brecher, Corporate Communications Office