Restoring the Reef

Feature | 10 March 2008

NGOs under a pilot ADB project have mobilized some two-dozen shoreline villages to take charge of protecting their marine resources. By trading short-term pain for long-term gain, these villages are beginning to reverse the tide of overexploitation.

Kavieng - Two stretches of water reveal much of the story of Papua New Guinea's declining coastal resources - and the efforts by some communities to reverse the trend.

In one beach outside Kavieng - the main port of New Ireland - a group of men and women are treading carefully in the ankle-deep water, trying to avoid the razor-sharp edges of broken shells concealed among the sea grasses. If they are lucky, they might find some small shells and the peanut worms that feed on the grass. But the big prizes - sea cucumbers and trochus (sea snails whose thick shells are used for mother-of-pearl buttons) - are long gone, possibly forever.

Two hours away, on the other side of the mountain range that divides this 350-kilometer (km)-long, narrow island province, it is a different scene. Half a dozen men, holding nets, wade into the sea. They are 30 meters out, with the water lapping around their waists. Within seconds, they catch several mullet, slithering and shiny. Shouting with triumph, they return to the palm-fringed beach and start degutting and cooking the fish over a fire.

The difference between the two locations is that marine life is exhausted in one, while it is recovering in the other. On the beach by Kavieng, one resident complains, "This area has been totally over-fished because it's near town, very accessible, and there are no restrictions or management of the reef. The people who come here have no idea about the importance of managing these resources."

By contrast, the village of Panakais on the west coast has stuck white poles into the water to demarcate an area that is closed to fishing. On this day, they are allowed to break the ban for a special occasion the next day - a feast to accompany a ceremony with a crucifix that has been brought to these islands from Rome.

The self-imposed no-go zone is only one of several restrictions that the residents of Panakais, a tiny settlement of 300 people in thatched homes among coconut palms and grey sand, have imposed upon themselves as part of a management plan drawn up with the help of a local nongovernment organization (NGO), Ailan Awareness. Other measures include a prohibition on poisoning fish with derris root powder, stunning them with dynamite, fishing with fine mesh by torchlight at night.

After the NGO has explained how some traditional practices upset the reef's ecosystem, villagers typically agree to elect leaders and draw up rules to reverse the fish decline. "The important aspect is that villagers take ownership of the project," says John Aini, head of Ailan Awareness. "Our role is to facilitate and support but the program is conducted at the village's pace."

This community-based management approach to conserving marine resources has been pioneered as part of a Coastal Fisheries Management and Development Project, financed by ADB with a $5.7 million soft loan.

Seven communities in New Ireland - and another 17 in the province of Morong - were implementing this approach by the time the project ended in 2007. A further 37 were on a waiting list to participate in the scheme.

"Our project was to kick start this concept and pilot it, and I'm happy that this has been achieved and we would like to see it replicated throughout the coast," said Allan Lee, deputy head of mission at the ADB resident mission in Port Moresby.

"Some of our inshore resources have been overexploited, like beche-de-mer (dried sea cucumber) and others, so this program is very important and the approach is good," says Sylvester Pokajam, acting managing director of the National Fisheries Authority (NFA), the semi-autonomous agency in Port Moresby tasked with managing the country's fisheries on a sustainable and profitable basis.

In Papua New Guinea, as in other Pacific island nations, land is customarily owned by communities and, for coastal villages, this right extends to the sea in front of them. "This makes it important for coastal communities to take responsibility for their own resources," notes Augustine Mohiba, NFA's executive manager for fisheries management.

With a coastline of 17,000 km and located in one of the most isolated parts of the world, Papua New Guinea has a wealth of fisheries - ranging from sea cucumber, trochus (shells), and reef fish in coastal waters to prawn and tuna in deeper waters further offshore.

High Demand

There is high demand for all these sea creatures, but sedentary ones are particularly vulnerable as they can be plucked from the seabed. For tens of thousands of small-scale and subsistence fishers, the sea cucumber is a source of ready cash as they can be sold to traders to feed a huge and growing demand in Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China, where beche-de-mer is a delicacy. Similarly, trochus and other mother-of-pearl shells are simple to gather and sell for export as decorative items and buttons.

As a result, however, both resources have become increasingly depleted. Reflecting this, exports of sea cucumber plunged to 400 metric tons in 2005 from a high of 700 metric tons in 1991.

Although more mobile, reef fish such as groupers, trevallies, snappers, and emperors are also under threat. One reason is that local fishing methods have become more efficient over the years.

"The problem is localized over-fishing and a lot of this is the result of the impact of technology on traditional methods," says Hugh Walton, a rangy consultant from New Zealand who has been helping NFA implement the community-based management program.

Moreover, recovery is slower in the Pacific than elsewhere. "With tropical fisheries, we have huge species diversity, but the biomass is not vast - species are slow breeding and slow growing," says Mr. Walton.

All this translates into bad news for Papua New Guinea's coral reefs, once among the most pristine in the world.

A March 2007 report on sea cucumbers in New Ireland that was commissioned by the NFA, found that numbers had dropped to 13% of 1992 levels, which had been alarmingly low even then. "The concern with sea cucumbers is that they need a certain density to reproduce, so some species may be depleted beyond a tipping point," says Michael Schmid, a German marine biologist who was a guest lecturer at the National Fisheries College in Kavieng during 2007.

Remedial Measure

As a remedial measure, NFA has imposed a closed season on sea cucumber for 3 months from October 1 to January 15 each year, but many think this is too little, too late. Brian Green, general manager of a fish processing plant in Kavieng, says the beche-de-mer situation is so dire that he has been pressing NFA for a 2-year ban on harvesting them.

"They should recognize that if somebody who makes his living out of selling sea cucumber recommends a 2-year closure, it must be serious. But you have to do these things to make it sustainable," he says.

So far, NFA has not responded to such calls. Ron Kuk, the NFA's executive manager for projects, says it is a political issue. He notes that, "There are so many people who depend on selling sea cucumber to meet basic needs." This is also true. Papua New Guineans are squeezed between a dearth of income-earning opportunities and the need to pay for their children's schooling and high-priced imported essentials such as kerosene, clothes, radios, lamps, batteries, and canned food, which are often preferred over fresh fish.

Clearly, in the addition to NFA edicts, "there is a further need to involve the community in the overall management of the resources under their respective jurisdictions," as NFA states in a recent annual report.

In the past, small and stable populations hardly made conservation necessary, but destructive fishing practices and steadily growing populations have changed the picture.

A village elder, 70-year-old Marcus Nges, wearing a traditional necklace of white mis shells (often used as currency) and laplap (sarong), recalls the times when fish were plentiful.

"When I went fishing as a kid with my father, we would lower a meter-deep net into the water and pull it up almost full of fish, big ones like Maori wrasse and dapple-headed parrotfish," he says "We would have enough to feed our family - with enough left over for other families as well."

But over the years, he says, some of the bigger fish disappeared and it took longer and longer to get a sizeable catch.

Thus, much of what they heard when the NGO first arrived at Panakais 2 years ago struck a chord with villagers.

"They told us in a scientific way why we should not catch small fish and why we should leave the spawning fish alone," says Francis Bolaf, a wiry man with a salt-and-pepper beard who is chairperson of Panakais' fisheries management committee.

As more communities decide to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains, conservation could make significant headway for, unlike forests, fish stocks can recover quickly.