A group of women in Fiji spend long hours walking out to sea to collect an edible seaweed that has for years served as an important part of the island nation’s diet, culture and income. But now the seaweed is becoming significantly more difficult to find, which puts the livelihoods of many at risk.
Nama, also called sea grapes, is a form of seaweed known for its pearl-like structures. According to Nama Fiji, a cosmetics company that uses the sea plants, nama has high concentrations of vitamins and minerals. It is part of the Fijian’s daily diet and is usually served soaked in coconut milk, reports Reuters.
But rising global temperatures and increased storm frequency have begun to affect the island’s supply of nama. Fijian fisherwomen told Reuters they now spend more time searching for the seaweed and reap far less reward.
“We are struggling,” said Sera Baleisasa. “…It takes two to three hours to fill up a bag. Before it took one to an hour and a half.”
Karen Vusisa, 52, told Reuters she is now only able to collect about half as much nama as she once was and spends much more time searching for it. Before, she used to be able to fill up a 44 kilo bag of potatoes with the tongs. Now she can only fill a 22-kilogram bag, a significant cut in her income.
A local woman, Miliakere Digole, told Reuters she buys nama directly from the fisherwomen before traveling several hours to sell it at a market in Fiji’s capital. A 22-kilogram bag from the fisherwomen usually goes for around $9.13. Once the women were able to collect larger bags weighing about 55 pounds, they sold for about $18.25. On average, Digole now earns just over $40 in three to four days selling an entire 55-pound bag of nama. For a 22-pound bag, she makes just over $27.
Marine biologist Alani Tuivucilevu, who is also the coordinator of the group Women in Fisheries, called the situation sad.
“This has been their way of life. So depleting nama supply really means eroding a way of life,” she told Reuters. “…It’s not just an erosion of certain species. It’s also an erosion of a certain culture. Not just Fijian culture, but Pacific culture in general.”
Tuivucilevu said the more frequent tropical cyclones mean there is “less and less time for these nama supplies to replenish.”
And the storms affect more than just food and income. Tuivucilevu noted that when there is a cyclone, women are forced to stay at home, with many facing domestic violence. In 2021, the Fiji Women’s Crisis Center reported more than 6,800 cases of domestic violence. Earlier this year, the centre’s co-ordinator, Shamima Ali, told The Fiji Sun that around 64% of the country’s women have experienced intimate partner violence.
“There is a long chain of effects,” Tuivucilevu told Reuters.
Baleisasa urged major countries to consider the world’s island nations when coming up with their plans to tackle the climate crisis. Last year, the UN’s climate change watchdog warned that the world’s island nations are ““
To prevent significant sea-level rise and even more intense cyclones, on top of other climate change impacts, the report warned that the world must reach net zero carbon dioxide emissions and reduce other greenhouse gases as soon as possible.
Tuivucilevu said that while adaptation has always been a “driving theme” for Pacific nations, it cannot continue.
“We can’t keep adapting,” she said. “The major emitters must recognize that the effects are not on them, that we face the brunt… Their actions, we face the consequences.”