In Fiji, David Whitley discovers how a hotel and local Fijians are trying to make up for the mistakes of the past.

The waters around Yanuca Island should, by rights, be something of a natural haven. Coral should thrive, fish should be bountiful and the great aquatic soap opera should play itself out on a daily basis.But everything is not what it should be. Years of run-off from farming, mistreatment of the coral and rampant overfishing have turned this would-be wonderland into a relative desert. What makes it interesting are the efforts to revitalise. 

Yanuca Island is just off Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island. It is home to the swish Shangri-La Resort, and hundreds of holidaymakers at any one time. But the land is owned by the local people, and these people have control and fishing rights over the water that adjoins it. The efforts to repair the mistakes of the past, therefore, are a fairly unique joint effort between residents, visitors, big business and a non-governmental organisation. In collaboration, they are trying to regrow the reef.

Some of the steps are fairly logical. Visitors are asked not to walk on the coral, use of chemicals on farmland and the resort’s golf course is curbed, and education programmes have been introduced for children living in the area. They, the theory goes, are the ones that will pester the parents to do the green thing.

More extraordinary is the element of self-sacrifice. The paramount chief of the region has banned all fishing in the waters around the island until stocks are sufficiently replenished. It’s like putting a roast dinner in front of someone and saying they can’t touch it. The mangroves are no longer allowed to be cut down either, even though people would probably prefer a clear shoreline. This is where fish live and breed; to lose the protection would be disastrous.

But the technical side is fascinating too. Attempts are being made to grow fronds of coral on farms in the resort, then attach them to the reef later on. It’s not an exact science. Branches of coral are broken off, placed on little webbing trays with a wire mesh and grown in the water. They’re then put back onto the reef attached to artificial ‘fish houses’ – and this is where the hotel guests come in.

As part of the activities programme, guests can build a fish house. It’s a fairly rudimentary thing made out of stone and cement that can realistically be knocked up in an hour. But it provides a safe haven for fish on the reef, and in the same way that shipwrecks end up being tremendous dive sites, it provides something solid for coral to grow around.

Those who don’t fancy making a fish house themselves can sponsor one – they’re given the GPS coordinates of where it is placed and track it via the web. It’s not possible to regrow a reef in a day, and progress has been painfully slow so far. But the quality of snorkelling is getting noticeably better, fish stocks are recovering, and there appears to be more alive than dead coral. It’s a textbook example of teamwork.