BUALA, Solomon Islands (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The peaceful Maringe coastal lagoon in the Solomon Islands’ remote Isabel province may not look like a place threatened by food insecurity. But declining marine resources and rapid population growth have galvanised local leaders into considering the emerging signs of climate change and taking action to protect fish and other marine life.
There’s not a breath of wind under the tropical sun as our motorised canoe speeds across the lagoon, some 11 km long and 3 km wide, separating the main provincial settlement of Buala on Santa Isabel Island from the open sea of the southwest Pacific, visible beyond a chain of islands and reefs.
“In this lagoon area today we have about 9,000 people living in 15 villages, plus another four to five villages in the highlands (behind Buala) and the population is growing,” explained Alex Nindi, chairman of the Maringe Lagoon Conservation Committee, shouting over the roar of the outboard motor. “Before we used to catch a lot of fish and they were big, but now we only get small ones.”
Freddy Haile, fisheries officer in Buala, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that coastal and reef fisheries have been severely impacted by over-harvesting in the past 10 years.
A marine survey conducted in August by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an international NGO, found that commercially important invertebrates, such as bêche-de-mer (sea cucumbers) and clams, were depleted, while fish sizes were small. At nearby Sulei Island, 80 percent of surrounding reefs were covered in thick algae, which is impacting marine life and may be caused by effluent from human settlements and logging activities in the area, TNC said.
LOW CONTRACEPTIVE USE
Isabel province has a population of about 30,000, which is growing at 2.5 percent per year, with the Buala region the most densely inhabited. The rate of contraceptive use - which is 24 percent for the province, compared with an average of 55 percent for all least developed countries - reflects the significant reproductive health challenges facing Pacific Island developing states.
These include problems delivering under-resourced health services to isolated rural island communities, traditional preferences for large families in countries with limited state welfare services, gender inequality and conservative beliefs about contraception.
This has consequences in a region that boasts the world’s highest consumption of seafood. An estimated 80 percent of coastal fishing is for local subsistence, while the trend towards larger catches is influenced by the need to boost household incomes with market sales.
Lovelyn, a young woman from Jejevo village on the lagoon’s edge, said her family eats fish three days a week, but others eat it five days a week.
Over the past decade, there have been other changes in the lagoon. “The sea has come in by about 10 metres,” eroding island coastlines, according to the conservation committee’s Nindi.
This and other effects of climate change pose a serious threat to the nation’s marine life, which includes 485 species of coral, 1,019 species of fish and 3,591 square km of coral reefs. The Solomon Islands is a member of the Coral Triangle, the planet’s epicentre of marine biodiversity, which also includes the waters of Papua New Guinea and four Southeast Asian nations.
The Secretariat of the Pacific Community forecasts that changes in ocean currents, sea surface temperatures and ocean acidity will seriously impact marine habitats and decimate coastal bottom-dwelling fish by up to 20 percent by 2050, and 50 percent by 2100.
FISHING AND POLLUTION RULES
Three years ago village chiefs around Maringe Lagoon met and decided that only conservation efforts would avert a future food crisis. Over the past year, a committee representing communities, churches, traditional leaders and provincial government has taken its message to affected villages and imposed restrictions on marine harvesting.
“We are very strict on people not taking the young fish, small fish for bait, or diving for fish at night. They are not allowed to pollute the water, use destructive fishing methods, such as dynamite, or take or damage the coral,” Nindi explained.
These rules apply to designated coastal, reef, mangrove and seaweed areas in the lagoon that are vital habitats and breeding grounds for fish, prawns, crabs, eels, clams, turtles and bêche-de-mer.
“We are working to maintain and replant mangroves, clean up all the rubbish in the water and along coastlines, and change people’s behaviour through educating communities and schoolchildren,” Nindi said. “But we also need to generate other forms of income for people, so that they don’t take so much from the lagoon,” he emphasised.
Community-based marine conservation is appropriate in the Solomon Islands, where more than 90 percent of inshore coastal areas and islands are under customary tenure and decisions about exploitation or protection remain in the hands of indigenous landowners.
But there are still significant challenges to the success of the Maringe Lagoon initiative. Poaching and human-generated pollution are relentless problems, while people continue to cut down mangroves for firewood and building materials.
“Everyone - the communities and their leaders - needs to have a sense of ownership to ensure the success of the initiative,” said Colin Gereniu, a marine conservationist at TNC, which is supporting the project with technical assistance, training and management planning.
LEGAL ACTION NEEDED?
But enforcement through verbal customary laws has had mixed results, and Gereniu believes it is now time to progress with listing the lagoon under the national Protected Areas Act.
Under the act, the community-led initiative would be supported by national legislation and the lagoon would be protected against future proposals for mining and logging.
TNC plans to submit an application to have the lagoon listed next year. If this is successful, and the community conservation initiative proves to be sustainable, there would be clear benefits, local experts agree.
“In future the bigger size of fish will return and there will be plenty of food for our children,” fisheries officer Haile said. “And the next generation will learn from the conservation project about the importance of protecting our marine resources.”
Catherine Wilson is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.