Evolution of village-based marine resource management in Vanuatu between 1993 and 2001

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By R. E. Johannes and F. R. Hickey (2004) UNESCO

A 1993 study of coastal villages in Vanuatu, an archipelago in the tropical western Pacific, revealed that, within the previous three years, marine resource management measures, designed to reduce or eliminate overfishing or other damaging human impacts on marine resources, had rapidly increased.

The main impetus for these events was the Vanuatu Department of Fisheries' promotion of a voluntary village-based trochus management programme. Trochus is a large marine snail whose shell is sold for making buttons, inlay in fine wood carvings and as an ingredient in certain paints, and is rural Vanuatu's largest commercial marine export. Initially the programme involved only a few fishing villages and the Department surveyed their community trochus stocks and advised villagers on the benefits of regular several-year closures of their trochus fishery, followed by brief openings. It was left to the villagers to decide whether or not to act on this advice.

The 1993 study revealed that villages that followed this advice found it so profitable that other villages quickly followed suit. Furthermore, observing 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, bêche-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 had also set up a marine protected area and stocked it with giant clams (Tridacna spp.).

In 2001, 21 of the villages originally surveyed in 1993 were revisited in order to determine how successful these community-initiated management measures had been in the eyes of the villagers. The main criterion for assessment was based on determining how many marine resource management measures had lapsed and how many new ones had been initiated. The results revealed that village-based marine resource management measures had more than doubled between 1993 and 2001.

While the Department of Fisheries continued its extension work in the villages and broadened its scope, another potent source of motivation for village-based marine resource management was the renowned travelling theatre group, Wan Smolbag. 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, Wan Smolbag's play on the plight of sea turtles was catalytic. Eleven of the 21 villages surveyed banned or restricted harvesting of turtles shortly after seeing the play and participated in follow-up awareness workshops conducted by Wan Smolbag. Wan Smolbag also encouraged many villages to select 'turtle monitors' to assist in a regional turtle tagging programme and to help oversee the conservation of turtles and turtle eggs in their villages. This programme has since been expanded to encompass natural resources in general.

Several lessons emerged from the study.
1. When properly targeted, village education on marine conservation can be a very powerful tool.

2. The initial focus of both the Department of Fisheries and Wan Smolbag on single important animals (i.e. trochus and turtle) seems to have been more effective in enhancing village conservation awareness than if total coastal resource management had been targeted right away.

3. The study supported the finding that customary marine tenure (the traditional right of villagers to control activities on their traditional fishing grounds and to exclude outsiders) provides the essential foundation for nearshore marine resource management in Vanuatu.

4. One way of encouraging the resolution of customary marine tenure disputes is the withholding of outside marine resource management 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 the opposite. Fisheries extension work targeting village-based marine resource management deserves significant support.

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