Horror at new plan to excavate pristine Fiji reef

0
1114

They want to create ‘world class’ surf waves by excavating two channels through coral reef off a pristine Fijian island group. But this Kiwi-led group, backed by some serious heavy-hitters, is being slammed for pushing what’s been described as essentially a dredging project.

By Cass Mason and Melanie Reid

A New Zealand-registered company is facing intense opposition to its proposal to excavate 2.5 hectares of coral reef at a Fijian island group in an attempt to improve surf waves at one of the most celebrated diving spots in the world.

Ambitiously named World Wave Project (WWP), the company plans to dig up sections of coral reefs off the remote Qamea and Taveuni Islands in Fiji in what it describes as a “world leading project” to create “a world class wave.”

It claims it will attract surf tourism expenditure for Fiji in the tens of millions of dollars.

In its own public consultation submission, WWP boasted it believed the planned waves would bring in 200 tourists per day spending $1000 (US$500) per day across 300 days, “creating long term employment and opportunities”.

And there are some heavy hitters funding the project. The proposal is being at least partially funded by the Founders Fund, the investment firm founded by PayPal’s Peter Thiel, known for its investment in start-ups like Facebook, Spotify, Airbnb and SpaceX.

But a swell of opposition is building as villagers and businesses fight back, and they’re joined by a number of scientists, surfers and even international environmental leader Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of Jacques Cousteau, who said he was compelled to speak out about the project out of a “moral sense of duty.”

The proposed development, at two sites near Qamea, would use a jack-up barge mounted with an excavator to dig two channels through coral reefs in a region globally renowned for its pristine waters and popular diving.

Emotions are high, with experts describing the plan as a dredging project of “environmental vandalism,” surfers saying the waves won’t work because the winds are all wrong, and some local villagers so concerned about offers from WWP that they’ve written to the Fijian Prime Minister to put a stop to the plan.

WWP has branded its proposed excavations as “resculpting” the reef, carrying out what it says will be minor modifications that will “improve the ecology” of the area.

The proposed areas being considered are ~1.125 ha (150m × 75m) and ~1.5 ha (150m x 100m).

Combined, it is equivalent to just under four standard rugby fields. The development is expected to take around six months.

Big names and big money

Venture capital firm Founders Fund was co-founded in 2005 in San Francisco by Peter Thiel, who was one of the earliest investors in Facebook and many other big name Silicon Valley ventures. Thiel is a somewhat controversial figure in this country, having gained New Zealand citizenship in 2011 under “exceptional circumstances” despite having never lived here. This wasn’t revealed until 2017, when he was reported to have had $150 million (US$101 million) invested in New Zealand company Xero and was ranked the nation’s third-richest person.

The Founders Fund – of which WWP shareholder Scott Nolan is a partner – describes itself as “finding ways to support technological development” and “earning outstanding returns for investors.”

While promotional material says the Founders Fund is financially backing the project, when asked directly who was providing funding, WWP only told Newsroom it would come from a group of “angel investors”.

Another big name involved is American Anthony Marcotti, well known in surfing circles as the founder of Kandui Resort in Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands.

Marcotti runs his own surf travel agency, World Wave Expeditions, which sells packages for surf resorts including Maqai Beach Eco Surf Resort on Qamea Island, one of the locations of the proposed excavations.

In 2012 he became a partner alongside four New Zealand businessmen in Vunabaka Resort, a 40-hectare site on Malolo Island, 35 minutes by boat from Nadi. One of these businessmen was WWP CEO and New Zealander Michael Lucas.

Alongside Marcotti, who is co-founder and a 22.5 percent shareholder in the World Wave Project company, the New Zealand Companies Register lists Shaw Mead (25 percent), Michael Lucas (25 percent), Raglan-registered Edwin Atkin (18.75 percent), two Fijians – Mohini Deo and Rasnil Kaylan, who hold 1.25 percent each – and San Francisco-based Scott Nolan with 6.25 percent.

Enter the Kiwis

One of those at the helm of the proposal is New Zealander Shaw Mead, a surfer who holds a PhD in coastal oceanography from the University of Waikato.

He is the surf scientist on the proposed wave development for WWP, as well as being a significant shareholder in the company.

He was previously involved with the now-defunct Raglan company Artificial Surf Reefs (ASR), which was behind a string of expensive, but largely failed, artificial surf breaks in New Zealand and around the world.

In 2012 he also designed and built an artificial reef in front of Maqai Beach Resort on Qamea Island, the resort of which he would later go on to be a director-owner. That artificial reef was described by locals as dysfunctional and looking like “a giant dog turd.”

As an independent consultant through his marine research consultancy company eCoast, his CV is varied, and includes providing expert evidence for an oil and gas company on the ecological impacts of a platform/pipeline development, and for another company on the biological impacts and recovery time of the seabed due to dredging and trawling.

Mead also consulted on the Chinese-backed Freesoul resort development on Fiji’s Malolo Island, which caused extensive environmental damage and landed the developers in court. He has worked for the Fijian government as a registered environmental impact assessment consultant, as well as authored numerous peer reviewed publications on the science of creating surf breaks.

His CV describes his career as being focused on the “application of environmental science for sustainable development” and the “management of environmentally beneficial projects.”

However, the World Wave Project is new territory for Mead. Unlike ASR’s ventures, which focused on placing synthetic geo-containers on seabeds in marginal areas, WWP plans to excavate massive channels through the sea floor and parts of a coral reef.

It was back in the mid 2010s that Mead and his wife Angela became the largest shareholders of Maqai Beach Eco Surf Resort on Qamea Island, not far from the proposed wave sites and where rooms range from NZD$175 to $245 a night.

According to the proposal’s public consultation document, WWP plans to spend F$12 million (NZ$8.2 million) upgrading the resort “upon successful completion of the prototype waves”.

Mead would not be interviewed by Newsroom about the project and told us to direct our questions to WWP, which we did. Copied into those questions (which included questions about Mead’s past attempts at creating artificial reefs), Mead himself responded with a very lengthy email which grew increasingly defensive.

He wrote he was not out to “fulfil my Dr Evil ambition to build multi-purpose reefs on every centimetre of seabed” and found it “very insulting” and “completely misrepresentative of what … the Qamea Reef Project [via WWP] is currently proposing to do in the area; based on the direction and tone of your statements and questions in your emails.”

At one point in the almost 3000-word reply, he wrote: “The WWP is not a bunch of developers coming in and destroying the environment, running rough-shod over the local people and taking no notice of the Fijian Environmental Act (2005) in order to fill its pockets with money.”

In another lengthy email, Mead pointed the finger at concerted efforts by “other people” to “spread disinformation” about the WWP project: “Which is why I caution against what ‘other people’ are telling you versus what’s actually behind any of the aspects of the WWP or MPRs [multi-purpose reefs]. There is a lot of ‘speculation’ in Fiji, talanoa/story telling is basically a national pass time [sic].”

A win-win?

The World Wave Project describes itself as sculpting “improved seabed profiles to create new surf breaks while increasing marine habitat and coastal resilience,” calling the Qamea Wave Project a “win-win.”

It estimates the project will attract over F$15 million (NZ$10.3 million) in capital investment to create the reef and upgrade nearby resorts, while generating more than $60 million (NZ$41.3 million) of tourist spend per year.

In an extensive and highly polished list of ready-to-go answers on the company’s website, rationale for the project is described as follows:

“The surfing population has exploded in the last few decades. As a result, the number of quality surfing locations around the world have become more crowded; the demand for surf breaks is massive and continually increasing, forcing surfers to travel further and consume more resources for the same surfing experience. We believe that creating more waves will lead to more surfers and more stewards of our oceans.”

It says the foundation of the approach is “firmly grounded in state-of-the-art science.”

When Newsroom asked WWP whether altering a natural reef was a bit 1990s, they said, amongst other things: “It is the idea of a blanket refusal to perform physical work in coastal areas that is out-of-date. Stewardship and sustainable management are required to build resilience for our coasts and communities.”

Effusive talk

Speaking on behalf of WWP, Anthony Marcotti confirmed to Newsroom the two channels WWP planned to dig currently amounted to just over 2.5 hectares (six acres) of the reef and seabed.

He described the impact the work would have on the environment as “minimal.”

WWP is effusive in its environmentally responsible talk, repeatedly referring to the development affecting “less than 1 percent of the reef”.

In actuality, that represents two 150-metre-long sections of coral reef and seabed more than 70 metres wide each. The depth ranges between 0.5 and 1.5 metres below the low tide mark, so more than 20,000 cubic metres of reef seabed would be moved across both sites.

When Newsroom asked whether the widespread local opposition and mistrust in the project could be related to the failure of the 2012 Mead-led design and construction of the artificial break outside the Maqai Eco Resort in Qamea, Marcotti replied:

“The breakwater at Maqai has nothing to do with WWP or Qamea Wave Project.

“We are not aware of any widespread local opposition and mistrust. We are aware of a group, that does not represent the local villages, which is concerned with potential environmental impacts. The group continues to vocalise misinformation which has been repeated through poor journalism.” After Mead declined to be interviewed, we asked WWP why a number of artificial reefs designed by Mead’s former company ASR – namely Opunake, Mt Maunganui, Boscombe and Kovalom – were all considered to have failed.

Marcotti replied: “These multipurpose reefs have very little to do with the Qamea Wave Project. However, the structural failure of each of these sites is related to the use of geotextile containers, incomplete construction and/or a lack of maintenance.”

In this latest attempt to make waves in Qamea, Marcotti defended WWP systems saying: “The proposed construction methods do not include dredging or explosives and are focused on two areas of low ecological value, the shallow area of the reef, with only small areas being removed each workable day.”

When we suggested that other experts described these methods as “dredging” and “desecration” of the reef, WWP’s response echoed the replies from Mead.

“Unfortunately, many of the descriptions you reference are based on misinformation and personal opinion, instead of factual reporting and meaningful engagement.”

He said using the word dredging was incorrect: “The reef sections we are proposing to work on have experienced large-scale bleaching events in a high-impact wave zone and are mostly dead, inert material.”

This is under dispute, however, with the percentage of live coral on the reefs in the proposed areas put at 30 percent by the marine biologist carrying out the Environmental Impact Assessment.

Local pearl farmer Claude Michel Prevost, whose oyster lines lie 150m from the proposed sites and who has done more than 4000 dives, says WWP is trying to downplay the health of the coral reef.

To prove this, Prevost used WWP’s own coordinates of the two sites and filmed the area at depths within the range of the videos the WWP has produced.

Prevost believes the WWP videos only show the weak parts of the reef. “People can make their own mind out of this,” he says.

When Newsroom asked WWP how a barge with an excavator scraping the reef could be described as “sculpting,” Marcotti responded: “Seabed sculpting means minor relocation, removal and/or addition of material to the seafloor.”

This could “dramatically improve wave quality and increase viable habitat over the long term, with minimal environmental impact,” he said.

That’s not the way Australian coastal engineer and surfer Ben Morgan sees it.

“Sculpting is not a word associated with this application. The reef will be dredged by a dredger, this is a dredging project in an attempt to improve the surfability of a wave.”

The area the project wants to dredge does not involve small volumes; he points out. To put it in perspective, one hectare with an average depth of 1 m is 10,000 cu m.

Morgan also poured cold water on the idea the development would either improve marine habitats or reduce coastal erosion.

“With the impacts of sea level rise upon us, Pacific Island communities such as those from Qamea and Taveuni Island are seeking how they can be more resilient in this battle. The World Wave Project is a step in the opposite direction that would look to remove some of the islands’ invaluable protective armour leaving them more exposed.

“The World Wave Project claims to reduce coastal erosion, but in fact will do the very opposite.”

In terms of the company’s claim the project would help form new marine habitats, “caution needs to be heeded with the World Wave’s Project’s claim that coral could be simply replanted like a vegetable garden, and all will be well.”

“The World Wave Project should be ashamed for proposing such a … development. Once the reef is dredged, it will be gone forever, and along with it the ecological and coastal protection it provides. If this environmental vandalism was to proceed, even only as a single scaled back prototype, a dangerous precedent would be set.”

The villagers

Resistance to the Qamea wave project includes village leaders, who say the activity could have serious consequences for the area’s natural ecosystem, upon which local people rely for survival.

Local chiefs of six villages in the Wainikeli-Bouma District on Taveuni, who represent the Traditional Fishing Rights (FRO) owners and from whom the project must get consent, said they were approached by a WWP representative and asked to waive their fishing rights.

Several local sources said WWP offered an incentive of FJD$30,000 – $5,000 for each village – to go towards education in the villages. The $30,000 figure was also listed in a WWP public consultation document, to be “paid on the completion of the waves”.

WWP has since said this amount is actually $60,000 – $30,000 initially as a gesture of good will, and $30,000 after completion.

The chiefs unanimously rejected the offer, taking their concerns to Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

On 29 September, they wrote to Bainimarama to express their “grave concerns and reservations” over the proposed development sites within the surrounding reefs of Taveuni and Qamea. The letter said the project would involve the “cutting, shaving, or modifying coral reefs with heavy equipment to create bigger surfable waves for tourists.”

The group wrote they were presented with the “economic benefits [the project] would bring”, but declined on the grounds the development was experimental, pointing out that the impacts could not be known; reef damage was irreversible and carried a high risk of affecting fishing and marine life, on which many people living in the area depend; larger surf breaks could accelerate coastal erosion; and there were no obvious economic benefits or royalties for local villages.

“We know that you will understand our position as these reefs have provided food and protection for our ancestors, the current generation, and with your support Sir, would sustain food supply for generations to come,” they wrote.

In what felt like a rapid-fire comeback, WWP says a questionnaire the company carried out since the letter was sent showed five out of the six were now on board. When Newsroom put that to Pasilio Sova, a Qamea local and co-owner of the land leased by the resort, he said “That is just not true at all.”

WWP said it had tangible evidence of their support, but when Newsroom asked for it, the company said it was part of the consultation process for the EIA, and that the results would be released when the assessment came out early next year.

However, Sova said the villagers had been fishing in the area for 2000 years and he was adamant there was no such support. “I just told [Mead] last week [22 November] after our village meetings that we don’t like him damaging … our fishing areas. We don’t want any of them to bring any papers to sign about the World Wave Project. In our meeting, the chief, elders and the village people want him to take that project somewhere else.”

The surfers

Another concern is the claim that 200 tourists would visit 300 days every year.

Australian Brian Cregan – the co-founder of clothing and surf accessories brand Ocean & Earth and who has been going to these northern Fijian islands since the early 1980s – says: “Approximately 70 percent of the time the trade wind blows onshore from between the south and east and these conditions are totally unsuitable for surfing on the south coast of Qamea Island. At best an easterly wind maybe cross shore but with a wind swell lump is still not desirable for surfing if an artificial reef was constructed.”

Australian surfer Gary Stein has been visiting Qamea Island for years. He quickly developed an affinity for the area and built strong relationships with local people – particularly in the village on Naiviivi where he funded a kava farm for locals to run for their own profit.

Stein, too, finds the surf wave plans abhorrent.

“It is very difficult to describe just how pristine and untouched this area of the Pacific is. The reefs are healthy and teeming with life. It’s perfect, and to assume one can improve on this perfection is ludicrous,” he told Newsroom.

“We’re talking about breaking the reefs, scraping them, silting the water. There’s absolutely nothing to be gained from surfers having one more wave to stand up for a few extra seconds – it’s ridiculous.

“The locals don’t want the cycle again of another foreign resort coming in that’s going to make big bucks from tourists. They pick them up from the airport, take them to the resort … they hire the locals at minimum wage and the trickle-down hasn’t solved any major problems for them.”

Pearl farmer Claude Prevost, who captured the underwater footage of the reef at the proposed sites, told Newsroom not only did the project pose environmental threats, but the delicate conditions it could interfere with had the potential to destroy businesses like his, which relied heavily on a continuous flow of water and plankton at specific depths – among other carefully researched conditions, he said.

Prevost shared emails he’d written to WWP CEO Michael Lucas, in which he wrote: “Proposed site #1 and #2 are actual popular dive sites ‘Seven Peaks’ and ‘Purple Wall’ which are basically two towering deep-water reefs positioned in a high current area that promotes the growth of rare purple soft coral. These sites by themselves are home to 80 percent of all the soft coral on this side of Taveuni.” (Proposed site #1 has since been ruled out of the proposal.)

He described WWP’s pay-out offer to local villages as a “cheap tactic,” which spoke of the company’s “arrogance towards the local communities.” This was especially undignified given the tough economic conditions for villages brought on by the pandemic, he said.

“Reshaping dive reefs for maybe enhancing surfability of waves could be very bad business for our tourism destination as a whole,” Prevost said.

He said there were real concerns the necessary approvals would be pushed through given “developing nations are easily blinded by investment dollars and unscrupulous developers.”

The company still must jump through several hoops before construction – slated for next November – begins.

Should the company eventually get consent from the Traditional Fishing Rights owners, it must also get permission from the Department of Environment, which is currently carrying out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

As part of that assessment, WWP has been delivering presentations to local groups.

The Taveuni Tourism Association, which represents 55 local businesses and tourism operators, has publicly declared its opposition to the project, saying the risk to the area as “one of the top 10 diving destinations in the world” is a primary concern.

President Terri Gortan herself had spoken to Mead about the project and said it just didn’t fit with his environmental credentials.

“[Mead] sounds like he is very much for the environment; however, this project just is not. It’s opposing everything that he’s standing for.

“They’re wanting to destroy the reef for monetary gain, but at what cost?”
Several weeks ago, Gortan attended a presentation held by marine biologist and surveyor Helen Sykes, an EIA consultant on the project working on behalf of the Fijian government whose job it was to survey the area to highlight the reefs that had the least amount of life on and around them.

Out of 11 potential sites, the number had been narrowed down to two. Even so, these reefs – despite having the least amount of life – still had 30 percent coverage of live coral and fish, Sykes told attendees.

The environmentalist

Even the son of the famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau has weighed in.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, the President and CEO of the Ocean Futures Society, said he was compelled to speak out of a “moral sense of duty.”

“I rely on the knowledge of scientific experts and together with my team at Ocean Futures Society, Dr Richard Murphy PhD, Chief Scientist-Director of Science & Education and Holly Lohuis, Marine Biologist, join me in strongly urging the rejection of the proposal from the World Wave Project,” he wrote in an official letter of objection.

Corals would be destroyed, Cousteau said, while reef substrate would be altered, habitat modified, and debris and sediments would be created – directly affecting adjacent reefs.

“What we fear even more, are the consequences we cannot anticipate. Our observations from around the world have shown there are delicate balances – ecological, biophysical, chemical, hydrodynamic – that maintain the health of natural reef ecosystems.”

Cousteau’s many years of ocean exploration had given him a “very clear appreciation of the value of coral reefs” and of how little we know about predicting the impacts of human actions on the ocean.

“Regarding development, we have witnessed environmental catastrophe over and over from projects where ‘experts’ told us there would be no significant impacts. The ocean is unpredictable, and we know far too little to really understand the dynamic process which governs reefs and their residents. What we do know is coral reefs are the most diverse marine ecosystems on our planet, home to over one million species. Of all the plants and animals found in the ocean, one quarter of them are found on coral reefs. Yet coral reefs cover less than 0.1 percent of the ocean.

“Coral reefs are the most threatened marine ecosystem due to direct human pressure from climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, coastal development and marine pollution.”

The government

Concerns around Fijian consents for potentially damaging developments are not new.

During reporting on the Freesoul disaster – which saw Newsroom journalists Melanie Reid and Mark Jennings spend a night in jail – Bainimarama issued a warning to similar developers, promising to bring in legislation which would “permanently ban companies that blatantly disregard” Fiji’s environmental laws and protections.

“We need to send a strong message to Freesoul Real Estate Development, and other developers looking to cause us harm, that they are not welcome to operate in Fiji – that message needs to be backed by law to prevent repeat offences from bad-faith developers. That is why we have been considering a law which we will urgently introduce in the next session of Parliament to permanently ban companies that blatantly disregard our environmental laws and protections.

“The Fijian people can be assured; we will not tolerate any attempts to violate the historic environmental protections enshrined in our Constitution – protections that we will build upon with meaningful legislation. We will continue to lead from the front on this issue, at home and abroad. We will continue to walk the talk, for the sake of our environment, for the sake of our way of life and for the sake of all those who come after us.”

On paper, it appears the World Wave Project shares similar values.

“Harming the environment is something our entire team is strongly against. As stated on the website, WWP is in the initial stages and if the project cannot be done sustainably then it will not move forward.”

To date, no law changes have been tabled in Fiji’s Parliament and Bainimarama is yet to respond to the villagers over their Traditional Fishing Rights.

SOURCE: NEWSROOM/PACNEWS