Government-supported, village-based management of marine resources in Vanuatu


Effectively monitoring and managing small, multi-species, multi-method nearshore fisheries along conventional western lines has generally failed in developing countries (e.g. Smith, 1991)1, including those in Oceania. Despite several decades of effort, participants in the l988 SPC Workshop on Inshore Fisheries Resources concluded that there were "few, if any, Pacific Island inshore fisheries which are currently managed."


Coastal fisheries, Vanuatu

Problem Overview:

Loss of near-shore fisheries

Effectively monitoring and managing small, multi-species, multi-method nearshore fisheries along conventional western lines has generally failed in developing countries (e.g. Smith, 1991)1, including those in Oceania. Despite several decades of effort, participants in the l988 SPC Workshop on Inshore Fisheries Resources concluded that there were "few, if any, Pacific Island inshore fisheries which are currently managed."

It is true that few Pacific Island inshore fisheries were currently being managed by government personnel. But it would be wrong to conclude that they are not being managed at all. If management means regulating who may fish, when and where they may fish, what methods they may use, and/or what they may catch, then fisheries management by villagers themselves has been widespread in Oceania for centuries.

It is now quite clear that far more has been going on in terms of local marine resource management in the region than some national authorities or fisheries administrators have been aware of until recently. Moreover, such activities are increasing in at least some countries in the region including Vanuatu, as described below.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that Pacific Island marine resources are necessarily being managed well. Management of marine resources by traditional Pacific Islands villagers does not guarantee their sound use. There are several reasons for this. One is that colonial governments, ignorant of traditional management structures and institutions, introduced various types of ineffective centralised natural resource management policies which persist today and often greatly weaken local authority (e.g. Dashwood, l991)2.

Another important reason is that villagers do not have adequate scientific information on which to base management decisions. Toloa et al (l991)3 identify the issue:

"The people of Tokelau feel that the traditional conservation system has served them well over the centuries. They are also aware, however, of the need for modification of the system to reflect recent changes. ..... Although the output from (marine biological research in Tokelau) has been utilised to some extent, a mechanism should be established so that the results are more fully incorporated into the Council of Elders’ management plans."

Villagers may not understand the need for certain types of management. Or, if they do, they may not know how to formulate management plans to address those needs effectively. The introduction of commercial fishing, the rise of trochus, giant clams, bêche-de-mer, green snail, rock lobsters and pearl shell as important exportable resources, and the introduction of new fishing gears and faster boats have all brought new management challenges with which traditional arrangements were not designed to cope.


An in-depth Solution Report for this project is available here.


In common with other Pacific Island fisheries departments today, Vanuatu’s Fisheries Department realises that managing most of its coastal fisheries from Port Vila is impossible (Amos, 1993)4. The costs of research, monitoring and enforcement in the multitude of small fisheries associated with Vanuatu’s several hundred coastal villages would outweigh the benefits by several orders of magnitude. But the Department is beginning to play a vital indirect role in management by working in the villages to help combine local knowledge with modern research-based knowledge to improve village-based management.

This type of management — where a government fisheries department provides scientific information and advice (as well as certain basic conservation laws), while coastal villages assume the bulk of the responsibility for local management — is a form of what is sometimes referred to as cooperative management (Pinkerton, 1989)5.

Cooperative management began modestly in Vanuatu in 1990 when Moses Amos, a trochus specialist with the Fisheries Department, announced over Radio Vanuatu that the Department would provide advice on trochus management to fishing rights owners who requested it. Response was enthusiastic, and Mr Amos and his team began to carry out trochus surveys on village fishing grounds. They also gave the villagers basic information on trochus life history and advice on such things as why minimum size limits on trochus are desirable, where trochus refuges might best be situated, and if, and for how long, their trochus fishery should be closed in order to rebuild stocks.

So far the Department’s work has been limited mainly, of necessity, to trochus fisheries. But it appeared to me that it might offer a basic general approach to cooperative management that could have application over a much wider range of species, as well as in other parts of Oceania.


The introduction of traditional controls on fishing for the purpose of marine resource management had occurred between 1990 and late 1993 in all but one of 27 coastal Vanuatu villages surveyed. The Fisheries Department set this trend in motion by assisting villages with their trochus management. The efforts of the Department and the benefits of closures are now widely appreciated by villagers, who have extended such controls to other species.

Vanuatu’s example suggests some strategies and conditions that would favor the success of government-supported, village-based management of tropical small scale fisheries elsewhere. These include:

1. Publicize in fishing communities the government’s willingness to collaborate with villagers on management issues, and invite requests for assistance from interested villages.

2. Start small, not with a comprehensive plan to address many types of fisheries or many villages.

3. Concentrate initially on villages where local marine tenure and local authority are strong and the community is cohesive.

4. Concentrate initially on villages where fishing ground geography facilitates effective village surveillance.

5. Focus initially on a single type or limited number of fisheries - preferably ones that have the following characteristics:

a. They are commercially important.

b. They are relatively easy for which to obtain useful management information, for example, benthic invertebrate species that are comparatively simple to census and monitor, such as molluscs (e.g. trochus, green snail, clams, pearl shell), or echinoderms (e.g. bêche-de-mer, sea urchins).

Trochus (as well as green snails - see Yamaguchi, 1993)11 seem especially attractive in this connection because of their limited pelagic dispersal capacities (in striking contrast to rock lobsters) and the consequent likelihood of the existence of more or less discrete local stocks.

Studies of effects of experimental management on bêche-de-mer stocks are badly needed in Oceania (e.g. Preston, 1993)30. Although bêche-de-mer are less important as a source of income in Vanuatu than in most other parts of Melanesia (Preston, 1993)30, Vanuatu, appears to offer excellent opportunities for the study of the effects of fishing ground closures on their stocks. As discussed above, bêche-de-mer fishing per se was not managed in the villages surveyed, but many villages employ total fishing ground closures which consitute de facto bans on bêche-de-mer harvesting.

6. Work toward ensuring that national law supports local authorities in their regulation of fishing by means of village-based prohibitions and enforcement mechanisms, but does not define these procedures too narrowly.

7. Provide formal legal assistance in disputes only where local dispute resolution or enforcement has clearly failed.

8. Train fisheries extension personnel in the skills necessary to help the community effectively combine local customs and knowledge with technical knowledge for the purpose of marine resource management, by:

a. studying local management procedures and relevant local knowledge concerning marine resources

b. obtaining relevant literature and research-based management information and disseminating it in forms that can be readily understood by the community.

9. Leave the final management decisions and enforcement up to village authorities.

An additional factor favoring effective CMT-based enforcement of village regulations in Vanuatu is the fact that only about 13 per cent of the country’s boats are motorized (David and Cillauren, 1992)25. This makes abuse of regulations more difficult than in some other Pacific Island countries where poachers in high-powered boats can more easily evade apprehension (e.g. Johannes, 1991)24.

Finally, given the lofty objectives of fisheries management as portrayed in most textbooks (see Hilborn and Walters [1992]20 for a refreshing antidote), it seems appropriate to conclude by providing those who still have faith in these techno-nostrums with some justification for management measures that have little quantitative foundation, such as many of those being used in Vanuatu villages today.

As noted earlier, the data necessary to provide such a foundation are quite beyond reach in small-scale, multi-species tropical fisheries, except, occasionally, for a few high-value benthic invertebrates whose populations are relatively easy to monitor. The consequent reluctance among fisheries biologists to impose regulations is one of the reasons for the dearth of effective government management initiatives in Oceania, despite decades of fisheries research. Marine resources, meanwhile, have been very seriously depleted in many areas.

In such circumstances a fisheries manager should not aim for some management ideal like optimum or maximum sustained yield, but neither should he or she give up. More realistic, but still invaluable objectives are simply to prevent serious overfishing, to ensure reasonably satisfactory allocation of resources and to minimise conflict. To achieve even two out of three of these objectives can be looked upon as a major accomplishment in any fishery.

In the opinion of fishermen I interviewed in some Vanuatu villages they seem to be accomplishing all three with the assistance of the Fisheries Department. It seems appropriate then, to ask the sceptics, when was the last time you met fishers who were that satisfied with the management of their fisheries?


An in-depth Solution Report for this project is available here.

Submitted by:

R.E. Johannes
R.E. Johannes Pty Ltd
8 Tyndall Court
Bonnet Hill, Tasmania, 7053

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