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Vanuatu Fisheries and Food Security after Cyclone Pam

Article | 7 April 2015

The devastation left behind by Cyclone Pam in the island nation of Vanuatu demonstrates the need for countries in Asia and the Pacific to plan for the aftermath of extreme weather events.

Cyclone Pam left a terrible wake of destruction on land in Vanuatu, dramatically seen in the “before” and “after” images seen around the world. But out of sight, coral reef fish habitats and the fishing equipment vital to the food security and livelihoods of coastal communities also took a hammering. Some of the worst damage was to fisheries infrastructure, with canoes, small boats and fishing gear destroyed by rough seas. It is believed that the island nation's coral reefs and fish stocks will take years to recover.

Vanuatu’s 82 islands are ringed by more than 1,200 kilometers of coral reefs. Coastal fisheries, mainly based on these reefs, provide most of the domestic fish supply, averaging 20 kilograms per person annually nationwide and 30 kg in coastal villages.

Fewer fish available

Pam’s destruction of reefs will reduce availability of fresh fish. Even if new fishing equipment can be provided soon, catches may be lower for some time because several important reef fish species complete their life cycles mainly around the same reef or reefs nearby. In addition, the damage creates more areas for the growth of toxic microalgae that cause ciguatera fish poisoning and may render some of the fish remaining inedible for several years.

The tragedy of Pam is that it has wiped out recent efforts by the Government of Vanuatu to increase access to fish for its rapidly growing population through installing so-called nearshore fish aggregating devices to increase access to tuna for small-scale fishers, and development of freshwater fish farming, mainly Nile tilapia.

Urgent needs

Assistance is urgently needed to quickly replace the fish aggregating devices lost during the cyclone and to increase their numbers. The great advantage of nearshore fish aggregating devices is that they yield fish within a matter of days of installation and are known to be one of the most effective ways of providing food for coastal communities after natural disasters, as proven in Solomon Islands after the 2007 tsunami in the Western Province.

They will enable transfer of some fishing effort from damaged reefs to tuna and other large oceanic fish. But communities will need rapid assistance to replace their fishing equipment so that they can fish around  the devices. Care will be needed to ensure the equipment is not used to overfish coral reef fish stocks recovering from the effects of Pam. A regional workshop held by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in March provided clear guidelines for getting the balance right.

Freshwater fish farming will also require support: rapid scaling-up of fry production to restock damaged ponds is needed. New ponds should be located in areas not subject to flooding and storm surge.

Planning for climate change

Investments in nearshore fish aggregating devices and freshwater aquaculture are also among the best adaptations for Vanuatu to maintain fish supply under a changing climate. As the productivity of coral reefs declines with rising temperatures and ocean acidification, fish aggregating devices may work more efficiently because preliminary modeling shows that skipjack tuna may become more abundant in Vanuatu’s waters over the coming decades. Prospects for freshwater aquaculture should also improve - tilapia grow faster in warmer water while higher projected rainfall means fish ponds can be developed in more locations.

However, cyclones are likely to be more powerful as the climate changes. Pam has demonstrated that the best laid plans can be destroyed by Category 5 cyclones. A practical way to help coastal fishing villages in Vanuatu prepare for future cyclones is to equip each island with the materials needed to replace fish aggregating devices lost in storms. The necessary supplies should be provided over and above those needed to construct and deploy fish aggregating devices for everyday use and kept in cyclone-proof storage systems (e.g., shipping containers) located in coastal villages.

A full version of this article can be found in the Coral Triangle Knowledge Network website.