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Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Evolution of Village-based Marine Resource Management in Vanuatu between l993 and 2001

Report to Environment and Development in Coastal Regions and in Small Islands - CSI, UNESCO

by R. E. Johannes[1] and F. R. Hickey

Table of Contents

Results and Observations
References Cited
Appendix l: Vanuatu Village-based marine resource management regulations for tenured fishing grounds, l993 and 2001
Photo library
Map of Vanuatu villages



A 1993 study of coastal villages in Vanuatu (see map), a small island country in the tropical western Pacific, revealed that within the previous three years marine resource management (MRM) measures had rapidly increased. (We define a marine resource management measure as a measure employed consciously to reduce or eliminate overfishing or other damaging human impacts on marine resources).

The main impetus for these events was the Vanuatu Fisheries Department's promotion of a voluntary village-based trochus management program. (Trochus is a large marine snail whose shell is sold for making buttons and inlay and is rural Vanuatu's biggest commercial marine export). Initially the program involved only a few fishing villages out of a total of several hundred. The Department surveyed their community trochus stocks, advised the people that regular several-year closures of their trochus fishery, followed by brief openings, would generate far more profit than the usual practice of harvesting more or less continually. They left it to the villagers to decide whether or not to act on this advice.

The l993 study revealed that villages that followed this advice found it so profitable that other villages quickly followed suit. Moreover, seeing what conservation could do for their trochus stocks, many villages decided to implement their own conservation measures to protect other marine animals, including finfishes, lobsters, clams, bÍche-de-mer (sea cucumbers) and crabs, as well as to ban or restrict certain harmful fishing practices such as night spearfishing and the use of nets, especially gillnets. One of the surveyed villages set up a marine protected area and stocked it with giant clams (Tridacna spp.)

In 2001 we resurveyed 21 of the villages surveyed in 1993 in order to determine how successful these community-initiated management measures had been in the eyes of the villagers. This was done by determining how many MRM measures had lapsed and how many new ones had been initiated. Our reasoning was that maintaining or increasing MRM measures, which all entail short or medium term sacrifice to fishers, was likely to happen only if the fishers thought they were worth the longer term benefits.

Our results revealed that village-based MRM measures had more than doubled between 1993 and 2001. There were a total of 40 MRM measures in the 21 villages in 1993. By 2001 five of these had lapsed but 51 new ones had been implemented.

While the Fisheries Department continued its seminal extension work in the villages and broadened its scope, another potent source of motivation for village-based MRM emerged in 1995 - in the unlikely form of a locally renowned travelling theatre group called Wan Smolbag (WSB). WSB brought to many villages a play on the plight of sea turtles. Although conserving sea turtles has proven to be one of the most difficult conservation measures to persuade fishers to adopt in most tropical Pacific Islands, WSB's efforts were catalytic. Eleven of the 21 villages we surveyed banned or restricted harvesting of turtles within the next several years. None of the villages regulated turtle harvesting when they were surveyed in 1993.

WSB also encouraged many villages to select 'turtle monitors' to help oversee the conservation of turtles and turtle eggs in their villages. By 200l 150 village turtle monitors had been appointed in about 80 villages throughout Vanuatu. The program was so successful that WSB, using donor aid and assisted by the Department of Fisheries and other conservation organisations, is training the turtle monitors to expand their efforts to encompass natural resources in general.

Several lessons emerge from our study.

  1. When properly targeted, village education on marine conservation can be a very powerful tool. In addition to greatly expanding their village-based MRM initiatives, the villagers also observed national marine conservation laws[3] more actively. An important reason for villagers' not observing these regulations in the past was found to be their widespread ignorance of them, or of their rationale. Once informed of these laws and their justifications, villagers' observance of these regulations reportedly improved markedly.

  2. The initial focus of both the Fisheries Department and WSB on single important animals (i.e. trochus and turtle) seems to have been more effective in enhancing village conservation awareness than if the more complex goal of total coastal resource management had been targeted right away. This broader objective can be phased in later. This is now being done by both the Fisheries Department and WSB.

  3. The Fisheries Department emphasizes that customary marine tenure (CMT) (the traditional right of villagers to control activities on their traditional fishing grounds and to exclude outsiders) provides the essential foundation for nearshore MRM in Vanuatu. This study supports their contention. The mean number of MRM measures in effect in the eight villages that reported internal CMT disputes was less than half the number in the 13 villages that reported no such disputes, and the difference was highly statistically significant.

  4. One way of encouraging the resolution of CMT disputes is the withholding of outside MRM assistance from villages where such disputes are active.

  5. Government personnel and aid donors need to be aware of the fact that subsistence fishing in nearshore waters is worth more in almost all Pacific island economies (including Vanuatu's) than nearshore commercial fishing. The distribution of government fisheries management resources often suggests government personnel and aid donors believe the opposite. Fisheries extension work targeting village-based MRM deserves significant support.

[1] R.E. Johannes Pty Ltd, 8 Tyndall Court, Bonnet Hill, Tasmania 7053, Australia
[2] Vanuatu Cultural Centre, P.O. BOX 1655, Port Vila, Vanuatu
[3]These laws, for example, set size limits on trochus, crayfish and green snail and ban the taking of turtle eggs or crayfish with eggs, or the use of poisons or explosives for fishing.
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