Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Coastal region and small island papers 15

1 Introduction

The style of sail formerly found in the southern islands of Vanuatu and recently revived
on Aneityum Island.

Recognizing the fundamental role that indigenous knowledge and the customary systems of land and sea tenure play in biodiversity conservation, the Department of Fisheries, the Environment Unit and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, with support of central government and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), have recognized that the implementation of any effective conservation strategy in Vanuatu must be based and initiated at the community level. Furthermore, it is considered fundamental that such approaches must be founded on the traditions of sustainable resource use and management that already exist in Pacific countries. The conservation community, international NGOs and aid donors have increasingly come to share this view, especially given the severe limitations (financial and technical) of many central government institutions in the Pacific to evaluate, monitor and manage natural resources.

As Ruddle et al. (1992) have observed: ‘The design of management schemes should include, as much as possible, effective indigenous strategies and should conform closely to existing socio-cultural and marine habitat boundaries, and endeavour to adapt many of the traditional institutions underlying such customary tenure systems as are appropriate’. This conclusion is all the more relevant given the ‘lack of physical and administrative infrastructure, trained manpower capacity and the funds to do this…’.

Among Pacific nations, Vanuatu is a prime example of how continuing community-based management of marine resources, rooted in traditional knowledge and practice, can inform both national and regional policy. The research presented in this publication serves to illustrate the strength of indigenous knowledge and practice which is integral to strategies and programmes aimed at enhancing biological and cultural diversity in this unique region of the world.

Customary marine tenure in Vanuatu

Understanding traditional marine resource-use rights is central to understanding marine resource management in Vanuatu. The rights to coastal waters contiguous to traditional land holdings usually extend to the clans, chiefs or villages that own the land. Rights may be subdivided and allocated to individual heads of families. These rights are recognized in Chapter 12, Article 73 of the Constitution of Vanuatu that states: ‘all land in the Republic belongs to the indigenous custom owners and their descendants’. Under the Land Reform Act (Cap. 123), the term ‘land’ includes ‘land extending to the seaside of any offshore reef but no further’. In addition to providing the foundation for village-based marine resource management measures, customary marine tenure can also contribute to the equitable distribution of the harvest and spread fishing effort.

The initiator of the Department of Fisheries trochus management programme, Mr Moses Amos, stressed to the authors that the fundamental cultural institution that provides the foundation for village-based management in Vanuatu is customary marine tenure4. He also emphasized that customary marine tenure forms the primary link between the Department of Fisheries and the communities. In instances where ownership disputes weaken customary marine tenure, the Department generally will not invest efforts in marine resource management support until communities initiate action to resolve the disputes.

4.  Customary marine tenure cannot, however, protect populations of species whose movements take them through more than one tenured fishing ground, unless all villages involved combine to regulate their exploitation. For example, it takes only a single village with modern monofilament nets to overharvest mullet spawning migrations paralleling the coast, and eventually cause all villages along the path of the migration to suffer from the depletion or demise of the mullet (Johannes, unpubl.).

Background to Vanuatu

Vanuatu is a small, independent, tropical archipelago about 2,000 km east of northern Australia, and between 12 and 22° South. There are over 80 islands, 67 of which are inhabited. A 1999 population census revealed that 78.5% of the population of about 187,000 lives in rural areas. On average over 75% of the total population lives along the coast. Overall there are about 790 villages, with an average population of less than 200. The islands' reefs, mangroves and other shallow nearshore habitats are important sources of animal protein for these people. A Vanuatu Statistics Department survey reveals that, collectively, 67% of the households in the 21 villages discussed in this document carry out subsistence harvesting of fish and other seafood, while 23% sell some of their catch (see map of Vanuatu marine resource management survey sites).

Some reef animals are exported, or sent for sale to urban centres. Trochus has been the single most important commercial marine product for many coastal villages. Through the l980s, trochus populations were typically overharvested and yields became very low. Responding to this problem in 1990, the Vanuatu Department of Fisheries initiated a programme to encourage communities to manage their trochus stocks (Amos, l993). Initially the programme was introduced in five fishing villages which had responded positively to radio announcements stating the availability of the Department of Fisheries for such activities.

needlefish off
Futuna using
a spiders web
as bait – note
catch stuffed
in legstraps.


of a spiny
lobster trap, its
deployment on
the reefs of
Futuna, and a


Villages that adopted the trochus management measures suggested by the Department of Fisheries (harvest closures followed by short harvest periods, plus strict observance of size limits) often reported much improved subsequent harvests, and the practice spread to other communities. Hearing reports of the success of this programme, Johannes (l998a) interviewed villagers in 26 coastal villages in Vanuatu about their marine resource management measures in late l993.

Johannes (l998a) found that 25 of the 26 villages surveyed had, since l990, implemented marine resource management measures based on the success of the five original trochus management trials. These measures varied from village to village and covered not only trochus but also, in some villages, lobster, octopus, bęchede-mer5 (sea cucumbers), green snails, various clams, crabs, various types of reef fishes, and/or marine resources in general. These measures, rooted in traditional practices, consisted of closures on taking various species, or restrictions of fishing areas, seasons, or the use of certain fishing gear including spearguns and nets, especially gillnets (Johannes, l998a). These closures are widely known as tabus, or bans, and are still commonly applied throughout most of Vanuatu today (Hickey, in press).

The results of this modest initiative by the Department of Fisheries, costing a few thousand dollars in the initial years, had a more positive impact on marine resource use than a multi-donor, aid-funded Vanuatu fisheries development project that had cost tens of millions of dollars (Johannes, l998a).


The term bęche-de-mer is more properly applied to the dried commercial product produced from various sea cucumbers, but is often also applied to the live animal in Vanuatu and some other areas. Trepang is another term commonly used in parts of the Indo-Pacific region.




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