A proposed project to excavate coral reef at a Fijian island group to improve surf waves has been called off after outspoken opposition from locals

A controversial project involving a Kiwi surfer-scientist and plans to excavate Fijian coral reef to create a surf wave has been canned following intense local opposition and an extensive Newsroom investigation.

A New Zealander behind a proposed plan to excavate 2.5 hectares of coral reef at a Fijian island group to improve surf waves told Newsroom the project has been called off after outspoken opposition from locals.

Dr Shaw Mead is a significant shareholder in the World Wave Project (WWP), a NZ-registered company that wanted to dig up sections of coral reefs off the remote Qamea and Taveuni Islands in Fiji in what it described as a “world leading project” to create “a world class wave”.

Newsroom conducted a months-long investigation into the project, published in December last year.

Now it has been announced the WWP are pulling out of Fiji following a heated consultation held this week on Taveuni between representatives from the WWP and traditional fishing rights owners, villagers, five tribal chiefs and other locals.

Fiji’s FBC News reported tensions grew high at the meeting, with locals calling for a halt to the project.

“From the Qoliqoli owner’s point of view, this process (project) is a no process to us. We’ve had enough of development in the Wainikeli area. That’s enough. No more. No more process, immaterial of thousands or millions. Please no more!” said Tanasio Tumoi from the Wainikeli district.

The meeting was held to present the findings of an environmental assessment for the project.

Newsroom asked Mead his reaction to the strong opposition from locals. He provided a WWP statement which said it was “somewhat surprised”, and as a result it would not be continuing with the project.

“Following the results of the marine resource study early this year which found that environmental impacts to the two potential sites for developing surf breaks would be short term, further communications between the village leaders and the EIA consultants for the project indicated a desire to formally meet and discuss the positive aspects of the project.

“However, it was made clear at the meeting that the land-owners did not want the project to proceed due to concerns of the effects on fishing opportunities. The WWP respects the decision of the landowners and will not proceed with the EIA application. The WWP will not be considering any further investment in Fiji.” 

Others present at the meeting describe the atmosphere as tense, with a presentation from Mead and WWP CEO Michael Lucas cut short with the five chiefs asking it not to be delivered.

“Mead and Lucas looked stressed and realised their fantasy was over. Virtually all of the 80 odd people present were totally against the proposal. Logic and wisdom have prevailed, so this surely is the end of disregard for the Fijians, an experimental project that has ecological vandalism written all over it,” said Australian Brian Cregan, who has been going to these northern Fijian islands since the early 1980s.

Traditional fishing right owners rejected the project and called for a halt to any future consultations by WWP. FBC News reported one of the chiefs present, Traditional Head of the Yavusa (Tribe) Korovatu, Iosefo Tikoisolomone, talked of how removing the reef at one of the proposed excavation sites would take away their survival because it is where villagers fish and gather their seafood.

Opponents of the project told Newsroom they were overjoyed to learn the project had been cancelled.

Local pearl farmer Claude Prevost, who attended the meeting, said he had a huge smile on his face witnessing the local rejection of the plan.

“We are extremely happy that WWP is pulling out of Fiji altogether. This project made no sense, no matter which way you look at it. From the environmental or social aspect, it was a disaster waiting to happen. Also, the untested experimental nature of the project was very scary.”

Late last year Newsroom conducted a detailed investigation which disclosed the WWP proposal was 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.

It also explained how the WWP planned to use a jack-up barge mounted with an excavator to dig two channels through coral reef. The proposed areas combined were the equivalent to just under four standard rugby fields and it was expected to take around six months to complete.

WWP branded its proposed excavations as “resculpting” the reef, carrying out what it said would be minor modifications that would “improve the ecology” of the area. The area in question is one of the most celebrated diving spots in the world.

In its own public consultation submission, WWP boasted it believed the planned waves would bring in 200 tourists a day spending $1000(US$500) daily across 300 days, “creating long term employment and opportunities” through surf tourism expenditure totalling tens of millions of dollars for Fiji.

But experts Newsroom contacted described the plan as “environmental vandalism”, surfers told us the waves wouldn’t work because the winds were all wrong, and some local villagers were so concerned about offers from WWP they wrote to the Fijian Prime Minister to put a stop to the plan.

Following the Newsroom investigation, Fiji’s Minister for Agriculture, Waterways and Environment, Dr Mahendra Reddy, addressed local concerns about the project and promised not to let any development go ahead that would have detrimental effects on the environment.

“Take my word, the Ministry of Environment will not give any approval to any investor who will do any damage to our environment, whether it is the reef, or mangroves, to our ecosystems or our biodiversity, we will not allow for any projects to adversely affect our environment,” Reddy was quoted as saying.

“There is no development there, nothing, they may be diving and exploring but no development will happen there that has a negative impact on the environment,” he added.

However it still looked as though the project had a chance of going ahead – until this week.

Despite questions being raised about local opposition to their project at the time of our investigation, the WWP denied any resistance.

WWP shareholder and spokesperson Anthony Marcotti, an American well known in surfing circles as the founder of Kandui Resort in Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands, told us he was unaware of any widespread local opposition or 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,” Marcotti told Newsroom.

Marcotti described the impact the work would have on the environment as “minimal” and the areas in question were of “low ecological value”.

“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.”

Prevost, the pearl farmer, was concerned Marcotti’s claims downplayed the health of the coral reef, so using WWP’s own coordinates of the two sites he filmed the area at depths within the range of the videos the WWP had produced. The difference in the two videos can be seen in our story here.

In response to last year’s investigation, Newsroom reporters received a number of emails from Marcotti, Mead and their supporters, including a rambling letter from Marcotti that described our investigation as a “pile of garbage”.

This story is written by Melanie Reid and Bonnie Sumner, originally published at Newsroom on 27 May 2022, reposted via PACNEWS.

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