Healthy coastal ecosystems, particularly coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass habitats, are critical in underpinning coastal fisheries, food security and vital ecosystem services that provide significant additional benefits to Pacific coastal communities and economies. These ecosystem services include shoreline protection, maintenance of water quality, support for reef and nearshore tourism activities, and resilience to the impacts of climate change.
Climate change is predicted to have a range of impacts on Pacific island countries and territories. Major impacts on coral reef, seagrass and mangrove ecosystems, and watershed runoff, are anticipated as a result of sea level rise, ocean acidification, shifting rainfall patterns, and increased intensity of storm events. Adaptation to these predicted impacts and changes must be applied in both ecosystem and social contexts if they are to be effective.
In Vanuatu, SPREP is supporting the multi-partner By-catch and Integrated Ecosystem Management (BIEM) Initiative Steering Committee to help to address these issues through an integrated ridge to reef approach and promote the sustainable use and restoration of coastal ecosystems for the benefit of coastal communities in four focal areas on the islands of Malekula and Pentecost.
Adopting a ridge to reef approach requires mapping the ecosystems from the highest point of the river catchments down to the outer edge of the reefs to gain an understanding of their biodiversity value, interconnectivity, resilience to climate change pressures and importance to the people who use and depend on them. It also means enabling communities to discuss the value of these ecosystems, and how they contribute to community well-being, in ways that may often be taken for granted. Thus, a highly inclusive, participatory and phased approach is being taken to ensure that the participating communities reap long term benefits from the planned activities.
After initial community consultations in December 2019, a team of government officers and the BIEM Country Coordinator re-visited the four focal areas in 2020 and 2021 to meet with community representatives and confirm their interest in engaging in the BIEM Initiative. The opportunity was used to conduct community profiling surveys – a Vanuatu government endorsed approach to gather information about the social and economic circumstances of the communities, understand their perspectives on traditional and co-management of natural resources and their reliance on coastal habitats and species.
Based on this information, the Steering Committee met on 30 June 2021 to consider a range of activities that are designed to help deliver Vanuatu’s conservation priorities and increase the natural adaptive capacity of terrestrial and coastal habitats by increasing the capacity of women, men and youth in coastal communities to sustainably manage the ecosystems on which they rely for subsistence-based lifestyles, sustainable livelihoods, health, wellbeing and customary practices. The Committee shortlisted 30 activities for implementation. These include raising awareness about the importance of threatened species and restoration of habitats; improving sanitation to reduce sewerage outflow to the sea; improving fish catch data collection; and supporting poultry farming for food security and as a source of supplementary income.
Government Departments are now drafting detailed proposals for each activity which will be used to inform discussions in the coming months with benefitting communities to determine which are implemented.
Vanuatu By-catch and Integrated Ecosystem Management (BIEM) Initiative Steering Committee
A focus on sustainable inshore fisheries
Mrs. June Brian Molitaviti, Manager of the Research & Aquaculture Division at the Vanuatu Fisheries Department, was part of the team that visited South West Bay to gather information about inshore fisheries through the community profiling surveys. She reflected,
“It was incredibly useful to visit the BIEM Initiative focal sites and interview a wide cross section of women, youth and men from the communities. It gave us a real insight into the issues they face so we can respond to their needs and respect their traditional management systems.
We learnt that most households catch fish from the reef or further offshore around a fish aggregating device (FADs) and sea mounts. They also fish the rivers and streams for mullet and prawns for food. But those interviewed noted that, as village populations have increased, local fish stocks have declined and we suspect they are being over-exploited. Tuna and other offshore species are available, but the price often makes it unaffordable for communities.
We learnt that fishers from the four main villages have already established a Fishermen’s Association and we plan to use funding from the BIEM Initiative to support them manage their fishing activities and facilitate training and support services from the Fisheries Department.”
Through the BIEM Initiative, the Steering Committee is taking a comprehensive approach to support the Association implement a more sustainable approach to fisheries management. Mrs. Molitaviti went on to say,
“The Fisheries Department has submitted a proposal to the Steering Committee to collect long-term catch data in each focal area to build a complete picture of which species are caught and trends over time to inform livelihood opportunities. We have also applied for funds to deploy two new fish aggregating devices to assist canoe fishers to target small pelagic fish for food security. Finally, opportunities to establish aquaculture initiatives focused on fresh water prawns and tilapia fish will be assessed to see how viable they are to provide additional food security and supplementary livelihood opportunities.”