A sea of plenty for how much longer: An investigation between fishing, culture and climate change

Elizabeth Heseltine

Standing on the old foundations of the first church in Port Resolution, on Tanna Island in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu, Werry Narua tells a story.

He speaks of his grandfather and how when he was very young, he got sick, so sick that in the dead of night in his mother’s arms he died.

When the other women crowded around to console the boy’s mother, she rose and told them simply that she was going to get her son.

She made a drink of special herbs, empowered with the knowledge that they would protect her on her journey and set off down the jungle track leading to the “tabu” caves around the point of the island that locals still know to be the entrance to the underworld.

Werry Narua stands on a cliff overlooking the Bay at Port Resolution, Tanna, Vanuatu. Photo: Elizabeth Heseltine

As the mother traversed the cave, it turned from the black of midnight to the shining light of afternoon.

She arrived to find the people on the other side preparing a feast for the new arrival.

The brave young mother informed the people of the underworld that her son would not be staying there, and she scooped the child’s spirit up.

Running back to the entrance of the cave, from the swiftly fading sunlight to the soft breaking of dawn and back up the jungle path to the hut where her son’s body lay.

She gently knelt over the body, a bundle in her arms, and to the amazement of the onlookers her little boy awakened, in the realm of the living again.

It is common knowledge, Mr Narua says, that this happened.

If it hadn’t had, he wouldn’t be alive.

But the knowledge of this, he says, has been lost with the colonisation of the island by the English and French, and the widespread adoption of Christianity.

Mr Narua says that now if somebody dies, they can’t go to the other side and bring them back.

With the loss of culture there is a permanent loss of life.

The same link can be made to one of Vanuatu’s most important and relied upon industries.


A traditional wooden outrigger boat, Tanna, Vanuatu. Photo: Elizabeth Heseltine

Despite the strong impact that colonialism has had on traditional culture in Vanuatu in some areas these ancient rituals persist.

In Port Resolution, a remote community on Tanna, local Mr Narua, whose father is the head chief of the village, says that he has a certain ritual he must perform every year if the Mackerel are to come into the bay.

“I have a special rock; it is shaped like a mackerel.

“It is passed down from father to son.

“Other families have different ones for different animals and plants, but my family’s is mackerel.

“There is a plant it’s leaves, they’re shaped just like mackerel.

“I gather them but is someone sees it doesn’t work, so I do it early morning.

“After I have been doing this the mackerel come”, he said.

Mr. Narua says that he has waited to do the ritual to see if the mackerel would come without it, but they never do.

Despite the success of this custom Mr. Narua says that he has seen fish stocks decline rapidly over his lifetime.

“I’ve been fishing since my childhood,” he said.

“Through my experience and through my monitoring, I think there are a lot of changes in the amount of fish we catch, the quantity we catch, and sometimes the quality.

“I remember out in the ocean here, we have so much fish compared to how much we have at the moment.

“They were easy to catch and very good sizes.

“But nowadays it is hard to catch fish.”

Mr Narua says that this decreased in the quality and availability of fish has much to do with the increasing severity of weather events, such as 2015’s Cyclone Pam, which is still regarded as being one of the worst natural disasters ever experienced by Vanuatu.

“I feel it is something to do with climate changes, it’s one of my views, due to the fact that along the costal areas now there has been a lot of damage along our coastal reefs.

“There’s no reef for the fish to hang around and feed.

“When we were kids there was plenty of living corals, I can remember that.

“But at this stage in time there has been a lot of cyclones, a lot of rough seas, and most of our reefs here have been destroyed.”

Despite the devastating impact cyclones have on reefs, it is to them and the seas that the ni-Vanuatu turn in the aftermath of them.

 The Government of Vanuatu has acknowledged the important role that the fishing industry plays in the wake of natural disasters with the now former Minister for Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fisheries and Biosecurity, Matai Seremaiah Nawalu, saying at the official launching of the Vanuatu National Fisheries Sector Policy in 2016,

“During natural disasters, as we witnessed recently [with Cyclone Pam], when other land resources are affected, fish provides healthy food and income for our people.”

Edgar Hinge at the National Museum of Vanuatu, Port Vila. Photo: Cassidy Muggleton

Edgar Hige, from the National Museum of Vanuatu agrees with this statement explaining the important role fish have on the ni-Vanuatu culture.

“It is our life, it is our power,” he said.

“If we didn’t eat fish than we would never have brainy people.

“It is more than any other meat because fish has life inside.

“Fishing in Vanuatu to me; it’s very, very important.”


Fishing’s importance as a food source is undeniable, and with its future in such peril the Government is starting to act.

It has identified this as a major issue for the nation, with the Vanuatu National Roadmap for Coastal Fisheries: 2019–2030 laying out the nation’s major concerns.

Natural disasters such as cyclones, volcanos and Crown of Thorn starfish outbreaks were listed alongside climate change, in the form of sea surface temperature rise and acidification.

Population growth, pollution and costal development were also identified as having a negative impact on coastal ecosystems.

The roadmap outlines the key areas the government plans on developing, in order to have a positive impact on these areas of concern.

Resilient communities, effective coastal resource governance, productive and healthy coastal ecosystems and happy, healthy and prosperous people are listed as the overarching outcomes and areas of focus when it comes to mitigating this problem.

A Humphead Wrasse for sale at the Port Vila local’s fish market that had been speared the day before, Vanuatu. Photo: Cassidy Muggleton

The government believes that successful implementation of the areas identified would result in healthier coastal eco-systems, which would help animals like the Humphead Wrasse, known locally as the Napoleon fish, have a chance of survival.

The Humphead Wrasse is listed as endangered and is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The wrasse is found in the waters off Vanuatu and is a prize for fisherman as it is considered a delicacy.

It is known as the most expensive reef fish in the world and can be found being sold in fish markets around the country.

A lack of education around the wrasse’s status, coupled with the financial benefit to people who live well below the poverty line and a lack of disincentives means that it seems unlikely that this fish, and the many others like it will be left alone.

Port Vila fisherman David Sumaki Gutan Lung shows off his catch of the day, Vanuatu. Photo: Cassidy Muggleton

A prize like the Humphead Wrasse provides a much-needed source of income for many ni-Vanuatu.

David Sumaki Gutan Lung is a fisherman based out of the nation’s capital, Port Vila.

He says fish are becoming harder to come by close to the shore, meaning that fisherman are having to travel further out to sea to find enough to survive on.

“I get [fish] off the reef, but off the shore, more deep,” he said.

“I use musket, spear gun or too hard to get big fish.”

Mary Saniel at the local’s fish markets, Port Vila, Vanuatu. Photo Cassidy Muggleton

Mary Saniel has been selling fish at the local markets in Port Vila since she was just a girl, acting as the middleman between fisherman and customers.

She says she sells about 50 to 60 kilos of fish a day but says the fisherman can bring in anywhere between 100 to 250 kilograms of fish per day.

“Sometimes it’s good, sometimes its not so good,” she said.

“It’s changed, was more [fish].

“Before fisherman go and fish was there, was there, was there. Now no.”

Mrs Saniel no longer believes that it can go back to how it was, believing it is too far gone.

This poses an issue for many people within the community who rely on fish being readily available to have an income, such as the women who cook in the local markets, usually preparing one or two specialty dishes.

Maylim Peeta carries a plate of food to a customer, Numba Wan Markets, Port Vila, Vanuatu. Photo: Elizabeth Heseltine

Maylim Peeta is one of these women and moved to Port Vila six years ago to make money so she could send her children to school.

She works at Numba Wan Markets in Port Vila serving her specialty of fish cooked with shallots, cassava and rice.

She says it is not always easy to get fish to cook.

“We use reef fish, but sometimes no reef fish so we use sliced fish like Yellowfin Tuna”, she said.

“Sometimes we go to cook the fish, but we have no reef fish to cook.

“This one is very important”.

Mrs Peeta says that the demand for fish is so high that they can’t buy fish at Numba Wan Markets, Port Vila’s main produce area.

“They’ve stopped selling fish in the market, so now we find hard to find reef fish or sliced fish”, she said.

She suggests that Japanese and Taiwanese fishing vessels are stripping much of the deep-sea fish, leaving little for local fisherman who are having to travel increasingly far out to sea to find fish.

“We only use little boats, we don’t have big fishing boats like Japan, Taiwan.

“The government should help to get one big fishing boat.

“To hire the people, to catch fish to make easy access to us to buy fish,” she said.

Karl Bob demonstrates how Banyan seed was used to poison fish before it was made ‘tabu’, Eton Village, Efate, Vanuatu. Photo: Cassidy Muggleton

In the past threats to fish stock have been recognised by community elders and managed by the people.

Karl Bob, a traditional owner from Eton, a village in Efate, explained how a common practise of using Banyan tree seedpods and Snake Root was made taboo.

“We would take one hundred, two hundred and rub this one here over the sea when it’s low tide.

“You take this nut and rub, on the rocks.

“When it’s mixed with sea water fish drink them and then they die.

“But now we stop, we stop because it kills everyone.

“Little one to biggest one”.

Mr. Bob said his ancestors made the practise taboo, banning it due the damage it was causing.

However today, the threat faced by the ni-Vanuatu people is far greater than the ones experienced by their ancestors, with much of it being caused by issues far out of their control.

 Vanuatu is one of the few carbon negative countries in the world, meaning that the nation absorbs more carbon than it emits, though the impacts of climate change are being felt there far more significantly than many of the global super powers triggering this change.

A group of traditional outrigger boats lay on a beach in the bay, Port Resolution, Tanna, Vanuatu. Photo: Elizabeth Heseltine

Much like Werry Narua’s grandfather’s journey to the underworld, it seems that it may take a miracle to bring Vanuatu’s fish stocks back from the brink.

And yet again, it is outside forces that are removing the ni-Vanuatu ability to resolve this on their own, like they were once able to.

Despite the ni-Vanuatu taking active steps towards managing this issue, it will take more than just them to make a real impact.

However, there is still hope.

But it will require us all to take those steps into the unknown and snatch our earth back from death, by those who love it enough to try. 

This article was supported by DFAT New Colombo Plan Funding where the student attended the Climate Change Communication in the Pacific: Vanuatu Mobility Tour in 2022. This Mobility Tour offers Communication and Journalism students an opportunity to explore the Pacific region and develop skills and expertise to write and report on climate changes.

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