On Avoiding Moths and Parachute Science

The Drew Crew is coming up on our one-month mark of being here in Fiji, and this month has been so jam-packed with experiences that it’s hard to even begin putting things into words. I’ve been keeping a running list in my field notes of all the things that I absolutely do not want to forget, but looking back on that list (which includes such items as “jungle chickens” and “moth in the oven”) I realize it will do nothing to help me recall the exact hues of vivid pink sunsets that I hope have been seared into my brain, but may actually fade over time (“Were they really THAT colorful? Nah, there’s no way…”), and the faces of Masi, Mere, Christiana, Heidi, Tukai, and the many more warm, selfless, wonderful people who welcomed us into their homes, told us their stories, and fed us endless meals of fish, coconut milk, fresh fruits and homemade bread.

This list I made includes the names of various village cats and dogs we came to know over the week, but does not capture the politeness with which they tiptoed across the threshold of our little lab house to lick our hands and sniff at our equipment. Also on the list is “not showering”, which…is self-explanatory, and elicits memories of crispy beach hair and smelly fish hands, as well as the shock on Mere’s face when she found out 🙂 But who needs to shower when you’re in the ocean every day for hours on end!? Spearfishing over patch reefs, sand flats, steep coral walls – at times it was difficult to drag ourselves out of the water even when we were exhausted and shivering. Except I guess there were a few hours of being on land as well, pulling out gills and brushing scales off our clothes and labeling fish and then laying them in beds of toxic chemicals to harden and be sent back to New York. (We did shower eventually.)

Also on that list is the morning where our fisherman friend Tukai happened to mention he had caught fifteen mullet a few hours earlier, and upon seeing our immediate interest, lead us around the village to the homes of ALL the people he had sold his mullet to so we could take gill samples from them. We thanked everyone profusely, they thanked us profusely in return, and many insisted that we take some bananas and papayas in addition to their fish gills, which didn’t really make sense but then it also kind of did, in an amazing, overly-hospitable, Fijian sort of way.

Our host, Masi
Processing party on Day 3 of No Showers

Then there was the night (our last night in the village actually) where we sat cross-legged on the floor and did the tatau. The tatau is a closing ceremony where we present our hosts with a bundle of kava and apologize for all the things we don’t even know to be sorry about, because we’re visitors and probably messed some things up, and they say “we totally forgive you” (which is a GREAT practice and should really be incorporated into every awkward social setting in the US). And as we were all sitting there in our garlands of fresh flowers listening to Masi forgive us, a MASSIVE moth – a small bird, really – flew into the room. For anyone who doesn’t know me, I have a major phobia of moths (and yes I know how silly that is). I thought I held my cool pretty well, but was amazed when Lily reached out, caught the thing in her hand like a ninja, handed it to Mere, who then went into the kitchen, threw the moth in the oven and slammed the door! Hence, “moth in the oven” on my list. This simple act is amazing to me not only because it proves Mere is a badass woman who can manhandle huge, bird-like insects, but also because it is one of the many examples of the kindness and thoughtfulness that our hosts constantly displayed. Mere knew how much I hated moths, and she also knew that the thing would almost certainly come back if she simply threw it outside, so she locked it away in the oven for the entire night so I wouldn’t have to worry. She gently released it the next morning.

While a story about an incarcerated moth may not capture the entirety of our hosts’ amazingness (another person may have chosen a more elegant anecdote to demonstrate this concept), we really do owe SO much to these people. Without the help of our companions in Nagigi we could not have gotten even half of the work we had set out to do this week done – and not just because they housed us and made sure we didn’t starve, but because they also put us in contact with fishermen and fisherwomen, people who truly know these reefs. This is one of the main reasons we strive to come back year after year (Josh has been working here for almost a decade now), and we spend as much time as possible talking to the village, getting to know them, and translating our science into useful and accessible knowledge. One of our lab’s central tenets is to avoid parachute science at all costs – which, at its most extreme, is when scientists “parachute” in to some community for a short but intensive amount of time, get a ton of amazing data, and then bail with minimal (if any) follow up with the community or people who helped them. I think this mindset – recognizing the importance of integrating scientific endeavors within the context of communities they rely on in – is especially important for students like us to be exposed to, and immersed in, as we train for future careers in conservation work around the world.

And this mentality is exactly why we took a dry day on Wednesday, so Josh could meet with Nagigi’s chief to discuss the implementation of a tambu area (a temporary, traditionally-managed protected area) on the village’s adjacent reef. The meeting was very successful, and it looks like there may be a tambu put in place before the year is out. This is a major step towards the protection of Nagigi’s marine resources, and it’s really amazing that our team is in a position to be able to provide information that the village can use in making these decisions (for a more direct example of what I’m talking about, check out this publication that resulted from last year’s interviews and biodiversity surveys in Nagigi).

So, sitting here on the ferry as we travel to our next field site on the island of Taveuni, I am happy to be looking back on an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding week. While our team did face many challenges (e.g. lack of overlap between days with boat and days with tanks – there was lotttttts of walking across tidal flats wearing about 50 lbs of dive gear), we were able to collect over 100 more samples than last year and add even more species to the list of biodiversity present in Nagigi. I have also almost entirely changed the complement of species I’m targeting for my thesis, which was stressful and still is a little scary but also has been an incredibly useful learning experience in troubleshooting. And, most importantly, we have strengthened the ties between Columbia University and the community of Nagigi, and there are plans for further protection of their marine resources in the works. I’m looking forward to our next four weeks of fieldwork in new and exciting places, but I hope that by some miracle of funding and timing I’ll be able to return to this wonderful village of Nagigi next summer and personally report the findings of my Master’s thesis to those who helped make it possible.

Preparing the lovo, or earth oven. We had a feast of yellowfin tuna, cassava, polusami and more, all cooked wrapped in leaves and buried over red-hot stones.
The “lab” location one afternoon, complete with fresh coconut water after a long snorkel.
One of our sampling sites had nearly 100% coral cover.
Taken on a day where we had the boat, but no tanks, which means spearfishing while freediving at ~30ft (exhausting but awesome)
Elora and Molly exploring on the day we arrived
One of the samples, Stethojulis bandanensis


Happy campers



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