Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Coastal region and small island papers 15

2 Survey of marine resource management measures, 1993 and 2001

The traditional net used on the reef flats of southeast Tanna.


The objectives of the present study were: (i) to determine the extent to which marine resource management methods were perceived by the villagers themselves as successful or otherwise; and (ii) to identify lessons that might be useful in future efforts in Vanuatu and elsewhere to better facilitate community-based marine resource management measures and indicate how governments, NGOs and aid donors might better assist with these activities.

In this study, interview surveys were used to determine the success of marine resource management measures. A statistically valid before-and-after marine biological survey in each of the village's fishing grounds would have been an alternative method, although extremely expensive and time-consuming.

In 2001, interview surveys were carried out in 21 of the villages originally studied by Johannes in l993. Villagers' testimony as to the effectiveness of marine resource management measures can sometimes be embellished by a desire to impress the interviewer. With this in mind, two criteria were used as indicators of the perceived success of the management measures.

The first criterion was whether or not these measures were still in effect eight to ten years after they had been implemented. Like most conservation measures, the ones implemented in the early 1990s involved sacrifices by fishers. Closing trochus harvesting for example, involved foregoing for up to five years (the length of the longest closure) the money that could be made from selling the shell. Closing of reef areas to other types of fishing or imposing tabus on the use of certain types of fishing gear similarly involved sacrifice. If such sacrifices were judged worthwhile by villagers, then the relevant management measures would still be operating.

The second criterion was the extent to which communities had implemented additional marine resource management measures since 1993.

Informal interviews were conducted by Hickey with chiefs and villagers of the surveyed communities, along with government officers and NGO personnel assisting with marine resource management, over a five-week period between June and August 200l. A set of general questions was used to focus the interviews loosely, but interviewees were encouraged to respond well beyond the immediate subject of the questions. Johannes et al. (2000) have described why formal questionnaires may limit the scope of information obtained on broad subject areas, when used as the main tool in interviews with local natural resource users.

In compiling the list of village-based marine resource management measures, improved compliance with national conservation laws by villagers have not been included as a separate measure. This is in order to clearly distinguish village-based management initiatives from those of the government, although improved compliance is also discussed under the specific marine resource management methods section. Awareness efforts to educate villagers about national conservation regulations and of their underlying rationale generally led villagers and village leaders to be more aware and supportive of these laws once they were informed of their existence and of the reasons for them.

Grouped results of marine resource management measures

Based on the survey results and the criteria adopted, the data indicate a high level of approval by villagers of their marine resource management measures. There were a total of 40 marine resource management measures in the 21 villages in 1993. By 2001, five of these had lapsed and 51 new ones had been implemented (Tables 1 and 2). In only two villages were there fewer measures in 2001 than in 1993. One of those was a village where there were marine tenure disputes. Village-based marine resource management measures thus more than doubled in the 21 villages surveyed, rising from a mean of 1.9 per village in l993 to 4.1 in 2001 (Table 2).

Table 1
Marine Resource Management Initiatives in 21 Vanuatu villages, 1993 and 2001
(More detailed explanations of the information are given in Annex I.)

  Management involving: #
Trochus Fishing ground closures Turtles Bęche-de-mer Spearfishing Use of nets Marine protected areas Giant clams Crabs Fishing methods destructive of habitat Miscellaneous
Anelguahat D   o             4
Mele                     2
Mangililiu   o               4
Tanolio     o o o o     o       5
Siviri     o o       o       4
Saama   o   o                 2
Emua   o x o               3
Paunangisu D   x o o     o         3
Epao     x o           o   3
Eton D   o   o   o           3
Erakor           o o       o   3
Marae D                 o 3
Lamen Bay   2 o               5
Pescarus   o o o o*     8
Lutas   o o o o     o     7
Pelongk       o •* o   •o3 10
Litslits D   •o                   2
Uri     •o2 o o o2 o*   o2 12
Uripiv D   •o     o o           4
Norsup D x x                   0
Tautu D                       0
TOTAL 8 11 18 11 10 8 7 5 5 4 2 9 86+
Operating in both 1993 and 2001
o Operating in 2001
x Operating in 1993 but since lapsed
D Marine tenure disputes reported as current
* Giant clam initiative that is also listed as MPA.
+ This figure is 3 less than the sum of the totals for each marine resource management measure because the 3 giant clam sanctuaries in which all other species are also protected, are also listed as MPAs, but were not double counted to calculate the total.
# Total number of village management initiatives in effect in 2001.
TOTAL Total number of village management measures of each type in 2001. Numerals indicate more than one such initiative operating in a single village.

The 'one-way' coconut leaf sail used to
return to Lamen Island using the 
power of the afternoon trade winds.


Table 2
Number of marine resource management measures in 21 Vanuatu villages, 1993 and 2001

  1993 2001
Total measures operating 40 86
Average number per village  1.9  4.1

Lapsed measures since 1993 


In 2001, the most often used marine resource management measures were fishing ground closures (18), trochus closures (11), tabus on taking turtles (11), bęche-de-mer closures (10), spearfishing tabus (8) and controls or bans on using nets (7). All of the turtle tabus had been implemented since l993. Of the five measures that lapsed, three involved fishing ground closures. However, during the same period six new closures were initiated in five other villages.

The three Maskelyne island villages surveyed (Pescarus, Lutas and Pelongk) had an average of 8.7 marine resource management measures – more than twice as many as the mean number (4.1) for all 21 villages surveyed. This may reflect their growing populations’ relatively heavy dependence on their rich marine resources as a means to generate cash and fill subsistence needs, thus creating the incentive to manage well. These villages are located on a small offshore island with limited agricultural potential (they have additional agricultural land on the mainland but it is relatively far away).

A recurring theme among those interviewed was that the experience of the past decade has shown that where village reefs are divided into several sections with different owners, marine resource management operates more smoothly if the owners cooperate to manage the entire area as a single unit rather than managing different sections independently. This would have been more in line with the way reefs were most likely managed throughout most of Vanuatu in the past. A traditional leader would often have had the right to introduce management measures over larger areas under their domain in the interests of the various clans (Hickey, in press).

Specific marine resource management measures


Preparing coconut leaves for the
fabrication of a coconut leaf fish net,
Anelguahat, Aneityum.

Two of Vanuatu’s most commonly
targeted commercial nearshore reef
resources, trochus (right) and green
snail (left).

Trochus and green snail management

Trochus is probably the most easily managed of all reef resources. The species moves only short distances during its adult life and its populations are relatively easy to count. The enthusiasm of villagers for trochus management is often based on easily measurable results (e.g. sales receipts). Surveys by the Department of Fisheries or by trained villagers can readily reveal when a trochus reef is ready to be harvested. In areas where communities follow the recommended management strategy of short annual openings (after an initial 3–4 year closure to allow overfished stocks to recover) and a strict adherence to minimum size limits, the indication is that these trochus stocks remain stable.

Green snails, whose shell is exported to Asian markets as material for inlay in lacquer ware, furniture and jewelry, are generally subject to the same village-based regulations as trochus in Vanuatu, i.e. trochus closures generally also cover green snail for the same period. Green snails had also been heavily overfished in most areas in the l980s. They reach maturity slightly later than trochus and one individual can produce millions of eggs with larvae that, like trochus larvae, settle soon after they are released (Yamaguchi, 1993). Under the circumstances, green snail stocks might be expected to respond well to the same closure periods as trochus, but this does not seem to be the case. The later maturation of green snails compared to trochus may account for this depletion and in the future, village-based management measures may well need to account for this to improve their management.

Yamaguchi (l993) refers to ‘the rapid depletion of green snail in actively fished areas and the slow rate at which populations re-establish after termination of fishing’. Green snails have become so depleted throughout most of the area surveyed that some teenagers reported that they have never seen a live one. It is ironic that the Asian economic upheavals of the late 1990s have significantly reduced demand, and in turn, fishing pressure for this species in Vanuatu.

Control of sea turtle harvest

Wan Smolbag theatre troupe
performing the turtle play, to raise 
awareness about turtle management
at the village level.

Green turtle swimming near the 
Maskelyne islands, south Malekula.

Tabus on the taking of sea turtles constituted the largest proportion of new regulations (11 out of 51) and involved the most villages (11 out of 21). Clearly there has been an unprecedented enthusiasm for turtle conservation in many villages since 1993. Whereas it is against national law to dig turtle eggs, there is no national law in Vanuatu prohibiting the taking of adult turtles. Until recently in most coastal communities, turtles and their eggs were harvested whenever the opportunity arose. In l993 none of the villages surveyed mentioned a tabu on the taking of turtles, whereas in 2001 more than half the communities interviewed recorded such a tabu. The reason for this striking change is unusual and instructive.

Many Vanuatu villages are visited periodically by the locally celebrated travelling theatre group Wan Smolbag. Operating since 1989, this group has made many village tours, putting on plays that simultaneously entertain and inform villagers about important issues such as HIV/AIDS and malaria-reduction through mosquito-control.

In 1995 the theme of the main play they presented in the villages was the plight of sea turtles and the need to conserve them. The villagers were apparently receptive to this message in part because, as many informants said, they were already aware of a marked decline in turtle numbers in their waters over the last few decades.

Not only did Wan Smolbag suggest that turtles should not be killed, but also that each village should select a ‘turtle monitor’ in order to help encourage turtle conservation and to tag nesting turtles and turtles caught in nets before they are released. In 2003 there are almost 200 turtle monitors in over 100 coastal Vanuatu villages. In 11 of the 21 villages where survey interviews were conducted, a turtle monitor had been appointed and in two villages two monitors had been appointed. Turtle monitors also report to the village leaders anyone who is found taking turtles or turtle eggs. Some turtle monitors post signs in villages to encourage villagers not to harvest females, as well as at nesting beaches during the egg-laying season to remind people that it is prohibited to take the eggs.

Some villages surveyed now tabu the killing of turtles outright and some villagers are under the impression that taking turtles is illegal according to national law. In general, only communities with turtle monitors have recently put tabus on their harvesting and in these villages compliance with the government prohibition on disturbing turtle nests has also generally increased significantly.

Above: Turtle Monitor
placing a tabu leaf over a
turtle nest.

Below: A sign used by
the Turtle Monitors, to
promote turtle
conservation, translates:
‘Help to increase the
number of turtles –
Don't kill female turtles’


In some villages people are allowed by their leaders to kill one or more turtles on special occasions, as in many areas of Vanuatu the consumption of turtle has ceremonial significance. In villages where these management measures were in effect, a number of informants reported seeing many more turtles in their waters than they had seen for many years. Due to these animals’ low growth rates, adult turtle numbers through local recruitment could not have increased significantly during just a few years of protection in Vanuatu. However, local numbers in protected village waters could be expected to increase within this time simply due to the turtles not being harvested and being quite mobile, i.e. moving in from elsewhere to feed as well as becoming less cautious given their protection. Protecting nesting females and turtle eggs could, of course, have an immediate positive effect on reproductive success.

Experience in many other Pacific Islands has shown that protecting sea turtles is one of the hardest conservation measures to persuade islanders to observe. The World Bank (1999) found, for example, that ‘the perceived compliance with turtle regulations was very low’ and ‘was perceived to be quite poor’ (during a survey of attitude in Pacific Island communities). Communities felt that these rules conflicted with cultural obligations such as the custom at some sites of giving turtles to chiefs, and that ‘turtle meat was just too tempting to resist’. Wan Smolbag's accomplishments in this regard thus seem to be setting a new standard.

With funding from the World Wildlife Fund and the European Union and the participation of the Department of Fisheries and other government departments, Wan Smolbag now runs workshops to further train turtle monitors. At their meeting in June 2001, the turtle monitors voted to broaden their mandate to coastal resources in general and to change their name to Vanua-tai resource monitors (‘Vanua’ means land; ‘tai’ means sea). With their latest play covering a wide range of issues on coastal resource management, Wan Smolbag is shaping up to become an important conservation force in Vanuatu.

Fishing ground closures and control of spearfishing and use of nets

The costs of getting statistically sound information on fisheries and fish stocks in so many villages would doubtless greatly outweigh the potential benefits (Johannes, l998b). Other studies have demonstrated the difficulties involved, e.g. Anderson et al. (1999) were unable to demonstrate differences in abundance of fin fishes in open and closed reefs in five Vanuatu villages. Their data were based on an average of only two underwater visual censuses per fishing ground, each of which consisted of counting fishes within a 7m radius of a stationary diver. The statistical power of the consequent analyses was thus very low.

Russ and Alcala (l996) present more persuasive data from the Philippines (and cite other studies) that support their statement that gains in biomass of finfish ‘of a magnitude potentially useful in fisheries management are likely to occur in reserves on scales of five to ten years, rather than just a few years’. With four exceptions (two marine protected areas along with two other areas closed to enhance snorkelling for tourists), total finfish closures reported in 2001 in Vanuatu villages lasted from six months to three years, with a mean of about 1.5 years. According to Russ and Alcala (l996), even the longest of these bans would be too short to be of much value as a conservation measure for large predatory reef fish. Although obviously the shorter bans would benefit trochus and short-lived, faster growing herbivores and small predators.

Even short closures, properly timed, could facilitate greater spawning. However, the consequent potential for improved reef fish production would take longer to manifest itself. Due to the small size of most of these tenured fishing grounds and the prolonged pelagic larval stage of most reef fishes, improved reef fish production would generally occur outside the fishing grounds where spawning takes place.

Why, then, do Vanuatu villagers persist with relatively short closures for finfish? One answer to this question came up repeatedly in the interviews. When constantly pursued by fishers, reef fish tend to get ‘wild’, i.e. harder to approach in order to spear them or scare them into nets. ‘Resting’ the fish for a period causes them to lose their caution and they become easier to catch. As any spearfisher who has stalked reef fish in both fished and unfished waters quickly learns, fish in the unfished waters are far less wary of the approaching diver and present much easier targets.

A modern iron tipped 
spear used for fishing
on Aneityum Island.

Short closures of fishing grounds to destructive fishing methods, such as using small mesh nets or night spearfishing for bumphead parrotfish, could be effective for these stocks. There is increasing evidence that the tabus against night spearfishing help conserve parrotfish (especially the prized bumphead parrotfish, Bolbometapon muricatus) which, when undisturbed, sleep in shallow water during part of the lunar month and are then very easy targets for night spearfishers (Johannes, l981). Fishers in many Pacific Islands are critical of the impact that night spearfishing has on these highly prized fish. For this reason, banning night spearfishing is one of the most common marine resource management measures that have been implemented in the Pacific Islands’ villages in the past 25 years (Johannes, l978; Sims, 1989; Hviding, 1996; Fa'asili and Kelokolo, l999; Dulvy and Polunin, in press; Johannes, in press).

Dulvy and Polunin (in press) have demonstrated in Fiji that the bumphead parrotfish has probably been extirpated around at least six islands and has become rare around six others where it was once reportedly abundant. In some Vanuatu villages night spearfishing is tabued for part of the year; in others it is tabued throughout the year. The second alternative is preferable, although seasonal banning of night spearfishing in spawning aggregations would clearly help protect various spawning species.

Over the past 25 years the regulation of banning gillnets and other nets has been another management measure often initiated in Pacific Island villages (Johannes, 1981 and unpublished; Sims, 1989; Fa'asili and Kelokolo, l999; Hviding, l998), including seven of those in the present survey. This undoubtedly helps protect against catching undersized fish, unwanted species and more fish than are needed. In Vanuatu it also protects against overharvesting mullet and rabbitfish on their spawning migrations and in their spawning aggregations; the locations and timing of these are sometimes well known to village fishers. Johannes (1981 and unpublished) has been told by villagers of mullet migrations/aggregations no longer forming, because of their elimination by gillnetting during these vulnerable periods in Papua New Guinea, Palau, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

One argument put forward by fishers in Vanuatu for allowing gillnet fishing at certain times and places is that it facilitates the capture of some species that are not readily caught by other methods, including mullet, scads (Selar spp.), sardines (Clupidae) and some species of rabbitfish (Siganids).

Controlled harvesting of bęche-de-mer

A fisher throws
his cast net in
the sandy



In recent years interest in harvesting bęche-de-mer has decreased in many of the villages surveyed. This was due, at least in part, to some unusual beliefs that have recently emerged concerning the roles of bęche-de-mer in the ecology of local waters. Because bęche-de-mer are sediment deposit feeders, the belief has apparently been fostered by some conservation personnel that they ‘clean up the reef’. Many villagers have taken this comment to heart. In several villages informants said that their waters had become cloudier since the bęche-de-mer populations had been overharvested, or conversely that their waters had become clearer since ceasing to fish for bęche-de-mer. In some villages there was a belief that if bęche-de-mer were overharvested, this was likely to cause ciguatera (the development of a substance in reef fish that is toxic to humans, resulting from consumption of a toxic dinoflagellate directly or via the food chain). Ciguatera is not uncommon in Vanuatu. In several other villages it was said that, when bęche-de-mer were overfished and disappeared, white sand turned yellow with algae and slimy green algae also proliferated.

Many sea cucumbers feed by using their tentacles to gather and ingest particles in the top few millimetres of sediment and digest the microbial coatings on them. This may reduce microbial growth that might otherwise turn some sediments yellow. Other species feed on hard substrates such as dead coral or coralline-algal pavements by ingesting the thin dusting of sediment and associated microbiota on them. This activity may prevent green algal slimes from proliferating and perhaps reduce levels of the dinoflagellate responsible for ciguatera. It is not clear why the absence of bęche-de-mer would result in greater turbidity of the overlying water, although claims to this effect by Pacific islanders are not limited to Vanuatu (Garry Preston, personal communication). Indeed some sea cucumbers’ feeding activities have been found to destabilize sediments (Massim, 1982). This is a subject worthy of further scientific investigation.

In one village the belief was expressed that bęche-de-mer give birth to certain reef fish and shellfish and it was good to protect them for this reason. This belief may have arisen from the fact that sea cucumbers provide shelter to various species of small crustaceans, gastropods, worms and fish which live on their surface or in their coelom or respiratory trees (e.g. Hamel et al., 2001).

Marine protected areas

A namele leaf placed by
a village chief at Erakor 
on Efate to indicate the
area is under tabu to all
fishing activities.

After sufficiently long closures, reef marine protected areas have proven to benefit fisheries through the export of fish into adjacent fishing grounds (Roberts and Hawkins, 2000). The establishment of marine protected areas in countries such as Vanuatu where community-based marine tenure exists, raises both novel problems and novel opportunities. Establishing marine protected areas in traditionally tenured Pacific Island waters requires obtaining the permission and cooperation of tenure owners after providing incentives to reassure them that they have more to gain than to lose. Larger marine protected areas would often require obtaining the permission and agreement of several groups of tenure owners. This would seldom be an easy task. On the other hand, once established, marine protected areas would be more likely to attract strong surveillance and enforcement by local people because of their traditional defence of local fishing grounds.

Two of the villages surveyed had declared portions of their fishing grounds as permanent marine protected areas – Ringi te Suh of Pelongk and Narong Park of Uri. Two other communities, Mele and Paunangisu, were indefinitely protecting their marine resources in areas important to tourists. In addition, several other communities said they were planning to introduce marine protected areas.

In developing countries where, unlike Vanuatu, local marine tenure is weak or non-existent, surveillance and enforcement in marine protected areas is correspondingly weak to non-existent, hence the preponderance of ‘paper’ marine protected areas in some of these countries (Alder, l996; McClanahan, 1999). With the strong customary marine tenure ethic coupled with the limited capacity of central governments to monitor and enforce marine protected areas in countries like Vanuatu, there is a strong argument in support of communities maintaining control over the initiation and management of marine protected areas. Compliance is also observed to be enhanced when as much customary protocol as possible is integrated into the establishment of these areas, in order to maintain and reinforce traditional beliefs and practices as the cornerstone of any village-based management initiative (Hickey, in press).



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