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21 Apr, 2022 08:52 PM 5 minutes to read

Thomas Bywater

Thomas Bywater is a writer and digital producer for Herald Travel

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Fiji might be the only place on earth where you can be fined $1000 for dropping in on another surfer's wave.

Long time boardrider and owner of Fiji Surf Co, Ian Ravouvou Muller is proud of that fact.

Since 2010 the country's breaks, coral - and the surfies found amongst it all - have been protected by the Fijian Surf Laws.

Part of the reason for this was to establish Fiji as a world-class "surf travel destination", the other was to help surfers and other watersports look after the country's rich coral breaks.

But what can surf etiquette teach us about the environment? Ian says the culture is part of a bigger conservation picture.

"The reef in Fiji is what people come for," says Ian, whether they know it or not.

Super coral: Ian Muller is helping to repair reefs with hardy native corals. Photo / Tourism Fiji Super coral: Ian Muller is helping to repair reefs with hardy native corals. Photo / Tourism Fiji

Fiji is home to the third-largest barrier reef system in the world.

The Great Sea Reef stretches all the way from the famous big waves of Thundercloud Breaks, through the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands.

"You don't get the sandbars like you get in New Zealand. The waves break in a particular place every time, because [the reefs] do not move. Come back in 10 years the wave is the same, it's what people love."

Looking after the hard sea forests is about more than protecting big waves.

The coral reef which preserves the character of the surf is also what keeps many of the atolls in place. This is why the prospect of coral die-off and warming waters are a concern for all Fijians.

For someone who spends every day in the water, it's impossible to ignore.

Warming waters, bleaching coral and increasingly destructive cyclones are wearing it away.

"The pandemic was a time to take stock of the damage to the reef," he says. It is happening not only to the surf-supporting ecosystem but Fiji's natural coastal defences.

In December 2020 the Category 5 tropical cyclone Yasa left evidence that all was not well in the pacific ecoysystem on the beaches of Nadi and in broken shards of coral. It was one of the earliest and most severe storms to hit the islands in living memory.

One of the weapons against the breakup of reefs are "Super Corals" and reef nurseries, something that Ian and the Surf Co have been heavily involved in.

The surfers have been working with Dr Austin Bowden-Kerby of Corals for Conservation to replant Fiji's reefs with more hardy, heat resistant species.

Breaking up dead coral with concrete aggregate, they have helped create a man made garden, within the reef system, made of pyramids and crosses that can be replanted with new coral growth.

Ian Ravouvou Muller is one of the founders of Fijian surfing. Photo / Supplied Ian Ravouvou Muller is one of the founders of Fijian surfing. Photo / Supplied

It's now part of the boat trips and surfing packages offered by Ian and the company.

Surfers visit the coral nurseries to plant sprigs of coral.

In his experience those visiting Fiji, particularly to surf the waves, care about leaving but it's all about educating them. Especially if it's happening beneath the surface and at a glacially slow pace.

"Tourists need to be organised," he says. "If it's not there, not planned and not prepared for them, they might miss it."

Growing between 0.3 to 2 centimetres per year, it can take over a thousand years for fresh reef to form.

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It's something that needs a lot of helpers and a lot of hands.

Leaving from Nadi out to the breaks you can spot him and his guests with black charcoal and beeswax sunscreen. The traditional recipe is pretty striking but is safer for coral than tubes of titanium sunblock.

"Even eco warriors need war paint," quips Ian.

The conservation laws that recognised the rights of ethnic Fijians as custodians came about at the same time as the early Surf Laws.

"We have our qoliqoli to protect the beach, lagoon and reef."

Beach cleans and coral planting is now part of Fiji's surf culture.

Anything that leaves the mainland ends up on the reef. Clean ups in Nadi and its beaches is as much about caring for the coral as planting new growth.

They have put $30,000 of Fiji Surf Co's money into placing more bins on beaches and rubbish collection.

The surf laws are part of a bigger awareness of "ridge to reef," says Ian.

In the same way you can be fined if you pollute the beach or coral breaks, you can be punished for ruining other people's appreciation of the surf. The founding principal was about respect.

"It came about through foreigners and resorts taking over the exclusivity of reefs. It abolished those exclusive licences."

There are other parts of these laws which take care of and protect the reefs.

"If they are a very greedy, bully kind of surfer who is aggressive and creates havoc for other surfers - dropping in on other surfers' waves - they can also be fined up to a thousand dollars."

"It's all about bringing good people to surf the Fiji way in the Bula spirit."