- Research published in the journal Climate and Development demonstrates that Tropical Cyclone Winston damaged mud-crab fisheries in Fiji in 2016.
- Surveys of the mostly women crab fishers in Bua province before and after Winston, one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, revealed that mud crabs were smaller and less numerous following the cyclone.
- The research could help government agencies address the lingering impacts of natural disasters to community fisheries.
The devastation wrought by hurricanes and cyclones, persistent and growing threats in today’s changing climate, can ripple through communities dependent on harvesting food from the sea, a new study has found.
Often, the reverberations felt in daily life are drowned out by the figures that tally up a storm’s physical damage.
“It’s important to realize that tropical cyclones can have immediate effects on food security and the economic well-being of small villages that depend on natural resources,” Sangeeta Mangubhai, a marine ecologist who leads the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Fiji program, said in a statement.
In 2016, Tropical Cyclone Winston tore through the South Pacific with winds reaching 280 kilometers per hour (174 miles per hour), making it one of the Southern Hemisphere’s strongest storms on record. It was also one of the costliest, especially to the island nation of Fiji. The government estimated the cost of the damage at around $943 million. The storm destroyed tens of thousands of houses and hundreds of schools, and killed 44 people.
Mangubhai and her colleagues at WCS also wanted to understand how a storm of this size might impact the fisheries that local communities depend on. In 2015, a few months prior to Winston’s landfall in Fiji, the team spoke with more than 100 mud-crab fishers, mostly from the iTaukei ethinic group, in the province of Bua. Bua sits on the country’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu.
Mud crabs are a popular catch in the mangroves of Bua’s coastal areas because they’re big and provide a lot of sweet-tasting meat. And they’re most often harvested, with nets or just scooped up by hand, by women. The researchers’ conversations revealed that the crabs were an important source of protein and income for many local residents.
In the months following the cyclone, the team returned to 16 villages in Bua and interviewed many of the same people with whom they had spoken in 2015, publishing their findings online Nov. 29 in the journal Climate and Development.
They discovered that more than half of the fishers they spoke with weren’t going after crabs any more for a variety of reasons. Some said they had to spend time repairing their homes after the storm. Others said that they weren’t able to get to the mangroves because trees had fallen in the way or because of lingering bad weather.
The people who did continue to catch mud crabs said their efforts weren’t as successful following the cyclone. They’d often get fewer than 10 crabs per outing, they said, where they used to be able to nab up to 30 in a single trip. Many of the fishers also said the size of the crabs they were able to catch had dropped as well. And they were more likely to sell the crabs than eat them to offset the costs of rebuilding in the wake of the cyclone.
Most research after natural disasters looks at the toll to infrastructure and often at a national scale. With this study, the researchers hoped to help the country’s leaders see beyond the eye-popping statistics on the damages leveled by a storm like Winston and better understand the ramifications to communities.
“The findings that mud crab fisheries are especially vulnerable is key to helping government agencies to design effective strategies to mitigate the effects of natural disasters,” Mangubhai said.
Banner image captured by NASA’s Aqua satellite of Tropical Cyclone Winston via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).
Thomas, A. S., Mangubhai, S., Vandervord, C., Fox, M., & Nand, Y. (2018). Impact of Tropical Cyclone Winston on women mud crab fishers in Fiji. Climate and Development, 1-11.
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