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Wildlife Conservation Society - A Boost for Marine Conservation in Melanesia

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A new partnership will integrate cultural considerations to ensure a more sustainable future.

By Stacy Jupiter

Traditional costumes from Huli wigmen of Hela Province, Papua New Guinea, incorporate many cowrie and other sea shells. ©Elodie van Lierde

Melanesia, including Papua New Guinea (PNG), Solomon Islands, and Fiji, is one of the most biologically and culturally diverse regions on Earth. The ocean territories of these island countries stretch thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. Yet today, the marine species and ecosystems that underpin the culture and livelihoods of millions of Melanesians are being threatened by rapid growth and modernization, resulting in overharvesting of fisheries and other marine resources for global and domestic markets.

Now, a new partnership between the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Blue Action Fund will help integrate local cultural considerations into marine conservation programs to ensure a more sustainable future before it is too late.

While individually unique, thousands of kinship and language groups across Melanesia all practice customs that rely on a healthy marine resource base. In Solomon Islands, shell money, crafted from strings of beads made from seashells, is still in use for ceremonies such as weddings, settling disputes, and customary bridal or land payments. In PNG, cowries and other shells form important parts of intricate costumes worn during cultural events that showcase the pride and identity of different tribal groups. Across Melanesia, fish and other seafood that are periodically harvested from customary fisheries closures (called “tambu”) are shared during feasts for important village events, such as funerals and church gatherings.

In order to ensure access to marine resources to enable these cultural practices, Melanesian peoples developed complex customary management systems. Although these systems were not inherently designed to ensure long-term resource protection, they provide an important foundation for modern conservation efforts, principally because Melanesian people feel strongly about preserving their local identity and ways.

WCS has been working with local people across Melanesia for nearly two decades. In Fiji, PNG, and Solomon Islands, WCS works alongside local leaders to help establish locally-managed marine areas (LMMAs). LMMAs are areas of coastal and marine ecosystems managed by local people, designed to achieve local objectives focused on sustainable fisheries, livelihoods, and maintenance of cultural practice.

In late December 2018, WCS signed the agreement with the Blue Action Fund to initiate the new three-year partnership to expand LMMA work in Fiji, PNG, and Solomon Islands, with the support of the governments of all three countries. Alongside these efforts, WCS will link the LMMAs to larger-scale marine spatial planning processes to help manage multiple, overlapping ocean uses that can both positively and negatively impact local efforts to regulate resource use and access.

Cleaning oyster shells at a pearl farm in Savusavu, Fiji. ©Stacy Jupiter/WCS

Because Melanesian people equate “conservation” with “sustainable use,” we work with local men and women in each country to develop small-scale enterprises reliant on a healthy resource base. For example, in Fiji, under our new initiative, we will work with the internationally recognized company J. Hunter Pearls to engage local fishers in the development of new pearl farms that are coupled with the management of their LMMAs. In Solomon Islands, we will encourage small-scale ecotourism operations associated with opportunities for wildlife viewing, such as turtle nesting. And in PNG, we will provide training to local fishers to improve the handling practices of high value marine invertebrates, such as sea cucumber and mud crabs, so they are able to sell their catch for higher prices.

The partnership will aim to double the amount of area under marine management in each country by the end of 2021 and measurably improve local people’s livelihoods. Ultimately, our success will be judged by the uptake and ownership of the activities by local people. Thus, WCS works to ensure that LMMA governance mechanisms are locally sustainable, appropriate, and integrated into any larger-scale marine spatial plans.

We also work to ensure that business practices are robust and fair in order to maximize the number of local people who can benefit. Our vision for Melanesia is empowered people with healthy forests and seas. The new partnership with the Blue Action Fund will provide a vehicle for getting us there, together.

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Stacy Jupiter is Melanesia Regional Director at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). 

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