Healthy reefs, healthy people: Community-based marine conservation in Papua New Guinea (commentary)

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  • Marine resources play a vital role in food security for coastal communities across Papua New Guinea, which, after Australia, is the largest and most populated country in Oceania. The maintenance of marine ecosystem integrity (the health of these habitats) ensures the provision of the goods and services communities rely on, including seafood, medicine, coastal protection, and carbon capture.
  • Today, these ecosystem services are in jeopardy — but a solution exists in working with local communities to reverse destructive trends.
  • Although this community-focused approach takes time, effort, and money, it represents our best chance for long-term success.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

A blessed country of spectacular landscapes and the most diverse array of cultures on Earth, Papua New Guinea is also a global hotspot for biodiversity. Just in terms of species, the South Pacific nation has more birds than all of North America, over three-quarters of the world’s hard corals, and at least 2,000 reef fish. At least 131 kinds of sharks and rays have been documented in its waters, including four species of endangered sawfish. Indeed, the waters of Papua New Guinea and northern Australia appear to be one of the two most important sawfish strongholds in the world, along with the Southeast U.S.

Papua New Guinea supports a wealth of marine habitats, ranging from the shallow waters of coastal mangroves, estuaries, and reefs, to the abyssal plains, sea mounts, and hydrothermal vents of the deep — which, off New Britain, can extend over four miles below sea level, one of the deepest points on Earth. With a coastline over 10,000 miles long and an estimated 1,205,000 square miles of marine waters, Papua New Guinea is the best of the best: a key hotspot of marine life nested within a global marine hotspot, the Coral Triangle.

Given this, it may come as no surprise that marine resources play a vital role in food security for coastal communities across Papua New Guinea, which, after Australia, is the largest and most populated country in Oceania. The maintenance of marine ecosystem integrity (the health of these habitats) ensures the provision of the goods and services communities rely on, including seafood, medicine, coastal protection, and carbon capture. Today, these ecosystem services are in jeopardy — but a solution exists in working with local communities to reverse destructive trends.

For millennia, Papua New Guinea supported subsistence communities. Human-induced destruction of marine and coastal systems was rare. But the country is growing, globalizing, and modernizing, and many of the traditions and customs that make Papua New Guinea culturally unique — including those associated with managing the land and sea — are starting to fade.

WCS collaborates with local people in New Ireland and Manus provinces to establish community-driven fisheries management plans that safeguard local food security and protect coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves. Photo © Elodie Van Lierde.

Recent exposure to the cash economy and access to global buyers, for instance, has led many residents to exploit their natural resources, including local fisheries, to generate income. Papua New Guinea’s population has increased from 2 million people in the early 1960s to over 8 million today, placing further pressure on fisheries and other natural systems to provide food.

In recent decades, the impacts of these changes have become evident to many community elders, who speak of declines in both the abundance and size of fish on their reefs. And this is borne out in WCS’s scientific research, which found that overfishing is occurring in several locations in New Ireland Province and fish sizes have declined over the last decade.

Papua New Guinea poses a complex challenge for natural resource management: conserving biological and cultural diversity while ensuring communities develop and sustainably adapt to the modern world. And it must be done within the context of customary land and sea tenure formalities. Most of the land and inshore waters in the country—including reefs and fishing grounds—are owned by residents in the form of traditional tenure systems. And the status of the land and sea can vary considerably from one community to the next.

Maintaining the integrity of marine ecosystems ensures they continue to provide the goods and services communities rely on, including seafood, medicine, coastal protection, and carbon capture. Photo © Elodie Van Lierde.

From WCS’s experience in two key provinces, an important theme has emerged: The importance of engaging with communities from the start and developing community rapport. If a community is not keen on improving the management of their customary areas, then few conservation objectives will be met and, at worst, such actions may aggravate residents.

In our work, we’ve collaborated closely with local people in New Ireland and Manus provinces to establish community-driven fisheries management plans that safeguard local food security and protect coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves. Local people working with WCS have been vital to this effort, often spending months developing bonds and exchanging knowledge to build a common understanding and inform conservation actions that are effective and culturally appropriate.

Ultimately, a rapport must be established through regular engagement between community members, local government, non-governmental organizations, and other key stakeholders. Such trust encourages the sharing of information, ensures transparency, and ultimately leads to the most effective strategies for sustainably managing marine resources, such as Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs).

Since 2014, WCS has worked with 23 coastal communities that rely on seafood for sustenance on the islands of Manus and New Ireland (in Kavieng District) in Papua New Guinea — two priority conservation areas within the Bismarck-Solomon Sea Ecoregion — in order to establish community-specific fisheries management plans to safeguard future food security and protect coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves. Map courtesy of WCS.

WCS is now working with our partners to get these LMMAs legally formalized, so that the management areas can be enforced under Papua New Guinean law. This approach is consistent with emerging evidence from around the globe that strengthening indigenous tenure rights is a critical strategy for conserving the world’s species and ecosystems.

Although this community-focused approach takes time, effort, and money, it represents our best chance for long-term success. We seek to help residents to continue to sustainably manage their land and sea areas for decades to come. Only then will the biological and cultural wonders of Papua New Guinea remain for future generations to appreciate.

Marine resources play a vital role in food security for coastal communities across Papua New Guinea. Photo © Elodie Van Lierde.

Jonathan Booth is a Marine Conservation Advisor with WCS Papua New Guinea.

Article Source: Mongabay