Over the past couple of decades, the future outlook of coral reefs has been dismal. With an increasing pressure from anthropogenic and natural stressors, coral reefs are declining around the world.

The Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation recognizes the importance of coral reef ecosystems. As a result, they began the Global Reef Expedition (GRE) – a collaborative effort to conduct coral reef research around the world from 2011-2016 in 26 countries.

Dr. Andrew Bruckner, LOF’s Chief Scientist explains, “Through our coral reef research we are working to identify factors that will reduce the potential for degradation of reef when affected by large-scale disturbances and help maintain suitable conditions for the establishment, growth and recovery of coral reefs following these damaging events.”

Fiji Coral Reef Education

Since the Education Department’s inception in 2012, LOF is making great strides not only to research reefs around the world, but also to educate students, teachers, and the general public about coral reefs and the value and threats of this valuable resource. LOF strives not only to educate in the United States, but as part of a global initiative.

During a month-long GRE mission in the Lau Province in Fiji, they did just that. LOF conducted 14 school and 8 village presentations reaching over 1,500 people on ten different islands. This is the first time in LOF’s history that this much coral reef education has been provided in a single mission.

Executive Director, Phil Renaud, expresses the importance of coral reef education stating, “Science is essential in supporting good decisions for natural resource management. However, science isn’t very effective in influencing people who rely on natural resources for food and economic well-being. That’s where education and outreach comes into play. Our coral reef education program is specifically designed to influence people’s attitudes and behaviors towards achieving sustainable and responsible use of their valuable marine resources, with good science always at the core.”

These Fiji coral reef education efforts were conducted in partnership with local representatives Roko Laitia Raloa, Protocol Officer at the Lau Provincial Council’s Office, and Roko Sau (Roko Josefa Cinavilakeba), High Chief and Representative of the Pacific Blue Foundation.

LOF‘s goal is to continue raising awareness about coral reefs throughout Fiji by working with local partners.

Cinavilakeba puts it best, “We are not finished with our work. This is just the beginning.”

A Personal Account of Our Fiji Coral Reef Education Experience

Roko Laitia Raloa, Protocol Officer at the Lau Provincial Council’s Office, and I are greeted at the boat tender by the principal of the primary school to which we are presenting our coral reef education program. Walking up to the village, we are welcomed by loud, harmonious singing pouring out of a school classroom. They continue to sing as we remove our shoes, enter the classroom, and take a seat. It’s been the same procedure as the twelve schools prior to this one, but I’m still smiling from ear to ear and the loudness and clarity of the singing never ceases to amaze me.

Students in identical uniforms from kindergarten through eighth grade sit side-by-side as we are formally welcomed by the principal. We are given permission to set up our projector, screen, and computer. Our generator is cranked on as we are nearing the end of our preparation. The students are anxious and a young female teacher leans over and says, “We don’t get visitors very often. The students are excited. ‘Ey?”

I nod my head and smile at the students. Roko and I are introduced and we begin our usual routine – I speak and Roko translates to the students. He’s a natural teacher asking questions and engaging the students as he translates. We both have the routine down so well that we know when the other one is going to speak or pause.

We begin our Fiji coral reef education presentation with information about the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, followed by two short films that showcase the M/Y Golden Shadow and the research that we are conducting while scuba diving. It’s seems to be an effective way to show the students what we are doing.

We continue teaching and I ask, “What is a coral? A plant, animal, or mineral?” Throughout the different schools the answer has been the same. About 95% of the students think that it’s a mineral because they believe it’s not living and it’s hard like a rock. We continue to explain that corals are animals and identify the relationships between the plant, animal, and mineral.

“In these remote islands, students are not taught about the environment around them. By providing this knowledge, we hope that they will better understand their resources and how to manage them,” states Raloa.

Next, we discuss the benefits of coral reefs. In the Lau Province, the villages depend on the reefs for fish and invertebrates, which is their main source of protein and for some, income. The students realize this importance and it’s a good transition into threats of coral reefs. We tell them that some coral reefs around the world are not doing well, but in Fiji, mostly they are much healthier. However, we inform them that if they don’t take care of their reefs, they too could become unhealthy.

The three main threats to reefs that we focus on during our Fiji coral reef education program is marine and land pollution, overfishing and destructive fishing practices, and crown-of-thorns (COTS) outbreaks. Using photos, we explain the different types of pollution. After a talk that we gave in Vanuavatu, with no instruction, a student began collecting the batteries that were polluting the beach.

Ron Vave, who assisted with teaching explains, “The boy was young and it threw me off guard when I saw him collecting rubbish. No one told him to collect the litter. We raised the awareness and it shows that the talk had an impact on this kid. It makes it all worthwhile.”

As we end our presentation, I explain, “There is hope for coral reefs around the world. The more we learn about coral reefs, the better we will know how to manage them and sustain these resources.” I then ask them, “Who’s going to protect your reefs?” The students respond loudly, “Us!”

I look across the smiling sea of faces and think – these are the future stewards of coral reefs.