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
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19) A tabu leaf indicator found at Lamen Bay, north Epi. This leaf indicates that a clans area is closed to all fishing due to the death of a clan member.



Vanuatu is a small, independent, tropical archipelago about 2,000 km east of northern Australia between roughly 12 and 22 degrees south latitude. There are over 80 islands, 67 of which are inhabited. 78.5% of the population of about 187,000 live in rural areas. Seventy per cent live 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 this population. A Vanuatu Statistics Department survey reveals that, collectively, 67% of the households in the 21 villages we discuss here carry out subsistence harvesting of fish and other seafood, while 23% sell some of their catch.

Some reef animals are exported, or sent for sale to urban centres. Trochus, a marine snail whose shell is used for making buttons and inlay and as an ingredient in certain paints, has been the single most important commercial marine product for many coastal villages. Through the l980s trochus populations were typically overharvested however, and yields became very low. Responding to this problem in 1990 the Vanuatu Fisheries Department initiated a program to encourage communities to manage their trochus stocks (Amos, l993). Initially the program was introduced in five fishing villages, which had responded positively to radio announcements stating the availability of the Fisheries Department for such activities. Villagers judged the results highly successful and the practice spread to other villages.

Hearing reports of the success of this program Johannes (l998a) interviewed villagers in 26 coastal villages in Vanuatu about their marine resource management (MRM) measures in late l993. (We define a marine resource management measure as a measure employed deliberately to reduce or eliminate overfishing or other damaging human impacts on marine resources.) Villages that adopted the trochus management measures that had been suggested by the Fisheries Department (harvest closures followed by short harvest periods plus strict observance of size limits) often reported much improved subsequent harvests.

Johannes (l998a) found that 25 of the 26 villages he surveyed had, since l990, implemented MRM measures based on the success of the five original trochus management trials. These measures varied from village to village, but covered not only trochus, but also in some villages, lobster, octopus, bÍche-de-mer[4] (sea cucumbers), green snails, various clams, crabs, various types of reef fishes, and/or marine resources in general. These measures consisted of closures of certain areas or tabus (bans) on taking various species or on the use of certain fishing gear including spearguns and nets, especially gillnets (Johannes, l998a). The results of this modest initiative by the Fisheries Department, 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).

Customary marine tenure

Understanding traditional marine resource-use rights is central to understanding marine resource management in Vanuatu. Rights to coastal waters contiguous to traditional land holdings are usually owned by the clans, chiefs or villages that own the land. Rights may be subdivided and allocated to individual heads of families. These rights are recognised 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'. 'Land' here includes "land extending to the seaside of any offshore reef but no further" under the Land Reform Act (Cap. 123). In addition to providing the foundation for village-based MRM measures (see below), CMT can also contribute to the equitable distribution of the harvest and spread fishing effort.

The initiator of the Department of Fisheries trochus management program (and now Director of the Department) is Mr. Moses Amos. He stressed to the authors that the fundamental cultural institution that provides the foundation for village-based management in Vanuatu is CMT[5]. He also stated that CMT forms the primary link between the Department and the communities. Where ownership disputes (see below) weaken CMT, the Department will not invest efforts in MRM support.

[4] The term bÍche-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.
[5] CMT cannot, however, protect populations of species whose movements take them through more than one tenured fishing ground unless all villages involved combine to regulate its 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 its path to suffer from the depletion or demise of the migration (Johannes, unpubl.).


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