Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Coastal region and small island papers 15

Memorial for a remarkable man – ROBERT E. JOHANNES


It is indeed an honor to dedicate this posthumous publication1 to the memory of Bob Johannes, who passed away in September 2002. Bob was a true pioneer, a colleague, a source of enormous inspiration and, I am honoured to say, a friend. He was also a visionary who introduced a number of new and, at the time, radical paradigms regarding the management of nearshore reef fisheries. He realized that the conventional scientific approach to tropical fisheries management was seriously flawed in that it lacked a consideration of perhaps the most important component of managing fisheries, the human component. Imposing the rigorous tenets of fisheries models intent on realizing an optimum or maximum sustainable yield on a traditional fishery in the Pacific was just not going to work. Bob had the insight and pragmatic sense to break from established scientific conventions to seriously consider the existing customs, social and economic needs of local communities and to advocate for culturally sensitive management plans that considered and addressed all of these needs.

Bob also opened our eyes to respect the knowledge gained from centuries of observation and intimate association with the natural world held by people living in traditional societies. He systematically revealed to us that these people were indeed ‘Natural Scientists’ with far greater knowledge of the resources they depended on than a scientist with a handful of degrees. Bob had the respect, humility and conviction in his beliefs to go and live with a rural community in Palau in the 1970s (despite his colleagues in the scientific community accusing him of ‘going troppo’), in order to scientifically document the knowledge these traditional fishers held. The landmark publication ‘Words of the Lagoon’, now a classic work in ethnobiology, was the popular product of that extended field trip. His insights helped the western world to shake off yet another layer of the ethnocentric mentality that the knowledge held by traditional societies was of a primitive nature.

Vanuatu was fortunate to have the direct benefit of Bob’s insights and support for community-based co-management. His survey of 26 villages in 1993 showed clearly for the world to see that the ancient systems of customary marine tenure continue to provide an ideal framework for communities to effectively manage their own resources and is sufficiently adaptable to be applied to contemporary fisheries management. His support for the Vanuatu Department of Fisheries’ early cooperative work in managing trochus and other nearshore reef resources helped to raise the profile of these community-based grass roots management strategies. He eloquently contrasted their success with the less impressive results of the multi-million dollar donor-driven aid development efforts to increase fisheries production and improve nutrition.

Bob went on to advocate a new direction and emphasis in fisheries extension work in the Pacific, which focused on cooperative management for improved nearshore fisheries as a priority. He highlighted the value for training extension personnel to include social science research methodology to assist with this new emphasis. Even bolder, he championed the idea that data-less management based on traditional and scientific knowledge, coupled with cooperative and adaptive management strategies, offered a practical solution to the enhanced management of tropical multi-species fisheries. The respect and credibility that Bob earned amongst the scientific community helped to convince donors and politicians that community-based cooperative management was indeed not only viable but preferable and deserved further support. Who could possibly be better placed and motivated to manage one’s own resources than those living with and dependant upon them and those who had inherited so much management-relevant traditional knowledge? Bob never missed an opportunity to advocate for more support and resources to be given to community-based management, and tirelessly demonstrated to us why this should be so through his extraordinary research and publication record2.

It was Bob’s idea to re-survey these villages some eight years later to document the outcome of the earlier initiatives of rural Vanuatu communities to better manage their own resources based on their ancient traditional framework of customary marine tenure. I am convinced it was one of the things Bob considered important to do before taking his leave. The findings of this new survey validate Bob’s convictions that Vanuatu’s coastal communities are highly motivated and have the capacity, utilizing the support and assistance of some well directed awareness input, to continue to adapt their ancient systems of management to the pressures of the modern world.

Although Bob, as mentor and warm hearted friend, will be sorely missed by all who knew him, we can be thankful for the vast amount he has published to continue to guide and provide the wisdom we will need to remain true to his vision. Bob planted the seeds of change, energetically and intelligently nurtured them and lived to see the fruits of those efforts. Much of what he proposed regarding the value of traditional knowledge and management systems to fisheries management is now accepted practice and is applied in various fisheries throughout the world. I am sure it was only then that he allowed himself to take the step to set himself free of the pain he felt due to his illness. I am also sure he left knowing he had lived his life well and fully, and that he had truly made a difference to the people he had set out to assist.

Bob, may you rest in peace and be assured that we will continue to strive to see the things you saw so clearly and easily, and nurture the seeds and fruits of your life’s work.

Francis R. Hickey

June, 2003
Vanuatu Cultural Centre
PO Box 184, Port Vila, Vanuatu

1. This posthumous publication is based on an earlier report submitted by R. E. Johannes and F. R. Hickey to the Coastal Regions and Small Islands platform, UNESCO.
2.  Special Edition of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s Traditional Marine Resource Management and Knowledge Information Bulletin, March 2003, which is dedicated to the life and memory of R. E. Johannes and includes his achievements, contributions and publication record (http://www.spc.int/coastfish/News/Trad/Sp1/Sp1.htm).



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