Vanuatu Fisheries and Food Security after Cyclone PamCatch of the Week
But out of sight of these images, coral reef fish habitats and the fishing equipment vital to the food security and livelihoods of coastal communities also took a hammering. An Australian press report noted that “Some of the worst damage was to fisheries infrastructure, with canoes, small boats and fishing gear destroyed, and reefs wrecked by rough seas…While trees are expected to bounce back within a couple of years, the island nation’s coral reefs and fish stocks might take a decade to recover.”2
Vanuatu’s 82 islands are ringed by more than 1,200 km2 of coral reefs. Coastal fisheries, mainly based on these reefs, provide most of the fish consumed by the population—consumption that averages 20 kg per person nationwide and 30 kg in coastal villages.3
There is great concern that in addition to loss of food crops, 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.
Research in the tropical Pacific shows that the diversity and abundance of fish associated with reefs can decrease significantly following cyclones.4
And scientists from James Cook University have shown that several important fish species often complete their life cycles around the same reef (or reefs nearby). This means that fish stocks affected by Cyclone Pam may take years to recover because replenishment is likely to depend mainly on the fish remaining after the cyclone—recruitment from other reefs may be limited.
Another concern is that dead and damaged coral reefs provide more areas for the growth of the toxic microalgae (Gambierdiscus) that cause ciguatera fish poisoning. An increase in the abundance of these microalgae could make a higher proportion of the fish remaining on reefs inedible for several years.
The tragedy of Pam is that it has wiped out the efforts that the Government of Vanuatu has been making to increase access to fish for its rapidly growing population.
On the advice of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), to provide access to 35 kg of fish per person per year to supply the protein and micronutrients needed for good health,5 the Vanuatu Fisheries Department has implemented two actions to help fill the gap between the amount of fish that can be harvested sustainably from coral reefs and the fish required for good nutrition of the population.
The first action involved installing nearshore fish aggregating devices6 (FADs) near several coastal fishing communities (with the assistance of development partners) to increase access to tuna for small-scale fishers.7 The second is the development of freshwater fish farming, based largely on Nile tilapia.
Consideration has also been given to using bycatch from industrial longline fleets offloading fish in Port Vila for export, to improve fish supply for the urban population, provided it does not interfere with the livelihoods of local small-scale tuna fishers.
In the wake of Cyclone Pam, assistance is urgently needed not only to quickly replace the FADs lost during the cyclone, but also to increase the numbers of FADs. Several coastal communities that did not have them before need them now. The great advantage of nearshore FADs 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.
This was the case in Solomon Islands after the 2007 tsunami in the Western Province, when FADs deployed by WorldFishwere feeding people soon after installation.8
Nearshore FADs also allow transfer of fishing effort from reefs to tuna resources and other large oceanic fish. This is particularly important given the damage to reefs caused by Pam.
The new FADs should be placed by experts in the appropriate depth range but as close to the shore as possible so that they can be reached easily. Communities will also need rapid assistance to replace their canoes, boats, and fishing equipment lost during the cyclone so that they can fish around FADs. Although new canoes and boats will be essential for harnessing the benefits of FADs, care will be needed to ensure they are not used to overfish coral reef fish stocks recovering from the effects of Pam.
The outcomes of the regional workshop on Future of coastal/inshore fisheries management,9 held at SPC on 3–6 March 2015, provide clear guidelines for getting the balance right: fishing effort and activities in the coastal zone and adjoining catchments that can affect fish habitats, should be managed by communities to minimize the gap in fish supply to be filled by tuna and tilapia. Simple regulations that can be applied by communities to restore fish habitats and allow coastal fish stocks to produce sustained and substantial harvests are needed.
Freshwater fish farming will also require support. Production of fry will need to be scaled-up so that the previous water bodies used for aquaculture and new ponds can be stocked to yield harvests within 4–6 months. New ponds should be located away from areas subject to flooding and storm surge.
In short, fishing in general, and fishing around FADs in particular, are the only options for providing nutritious food for the remote communities in Vanuatu, apart from the delivery of food aid, during the months ahead required for growth of traditional crops.
Investments in nearshore FADs and freshwater aquaculture to help Vanuatu cope with Cyclone Pam are also among the best adaptations to climate change. The ability of coral reefs to support coastal fisheries is expected to be progressively eroded by rising sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification. Live coral cover is projected to decline by 25% to 65% by 2035, and 50% to 75% by 2050, reducing coastal fisheries production by 20% by 2050.10
The projected effects of increased greenhouse gas emissions on coral reefs will make the fish food gap even wider. More tuna will be required and additional nearshore FADs will need to be part of the national infrastructure for food security.
On the positive side, preliminary modeling of the effects of climate change on skipjack tuna by SPC suggests that this species may be more abundant around Vanuatu in the decades ahead. Freshwater aquaculture is also expected to be favored by climate change because Nile tilapia will grow faster at warmer water temperatures and higher projected rainfall will enable fish ponds to be developed in more locations.11
A more foreboding projection is that cyclones are likely to be more powerful as the climate changes.12 Pam has demonstrated that the best laid plans can be destroyed by Category 5 cyclones. Therefore, there is a need not only to help move more coastal fishing effort to tuna using nearshore FADs as reefs degrade, but also to assist coastal fishing communities cope with future cyclones—the most pervasive natural disasters in the region.
A practical way to help coastal fishing villages in Vanuatu prepare for the future cyclones is to supply each island with the materials needed to replace FADs lost in the storms. The necessary supplies should be provided over and above those needed to construct and deploy FADs for everyday use. The equipment required for emergency replacement of FADs is: a motorized boat to deploy FADs; materials to build and anchor FADs, fishing equipment; and cyclone-proof storage (e.g., a shipping container) for all these items.
Commitment by island communities to use the equipment only for deploying FADs lost due to cyclones, or for training in how to install FADs and maintain the motor boat, will also be an essential part of this important component of disaster risk reduction. – Johann Bell and Jay Maclean
Johann Bell, Consultant, Betty and Gordon Moore Center of Science and Oceans, Conservation International (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jay Maclean, Consultant, Asian Development Bank, Manila, Philippines (email@example.com)
8 Prange, J.A., C. Oengpepa, and K.L. Rhodes. 2009. Nearshore fish aggregating devices: a means of habitat protection and food security in post-disaster Solomon Islands. SPC Fisheries Newsletter 130. pp. 19-20.