How ni-Vanuatu communities are protecting dugongs and other vulnerable species

Josh McGuinness (originally published: )

Vanuatu conservationists are prioritising education for small communities to help support dugong protection and survival, with weather conditions worsening due to  climate change.

Regarded as the most disaster-prone country in the world by some reports,  the South Pacific country is hit by two to three cyclones per year on average, which devastates coastal environments and biodiversity. 

Biologist and Vanuatu Environmental Science Society [VESS] volunteer Martika Tahi says one of the impacts of climate change is on seagrass beds, which dugongs and other vulnerable marine life rely on.

Marine Biologist & VESS Volunteer, Martika Tahi

“Last year and this year we had a La Niña season, so more rainfall and more runoff to the ocean which can affect the seagrass beds that need sunlight to grow, if the water is not clear they won’t grow.” Ms Tahi said.

Coastal erosion sees huge amounts of sand dumped  into the ocean, which Ms Tahi said clouds the water and creates a barrier to sunlight the seagrass needs to grow. 

She said recent surveys by VESS found changes in seagrass along North Efate’s coastline. 

“Two years ago there wasn’t any sand spit but when we went last week there was a large area of sand that was deposited near the seagrass bed,” she said.

“This happened because of the storm surges we had months earlier.

Ms Tahi said the team is regularly monitoring seagrass hotspots across the islands , as the country reopens to international travellers. .

“We have one seagrass monitoring site in Epi Island in the south,” she said

“We’ve noticed some differences when we go and do the monitoring. 

“The coral rubble was on one side before and the next time it had moved through the seagrass beds”

“We had tropical cyclones in 2020 and storm surges that are causing the coral rubble to bury the seagrass beds.” 

According to VESS, rising sea levels and changing sea temperatures also pose a threat to seagrass conservation efforts, as the plants cannot survive deeper, warmer waters.

Tourism a help and hindrance for Vanuatu’s dugongs 

The opportunity to get up close and personal with a wild dugong  draws tourists to Vanuatu each year, and also generates income for locals – conserving the species benefits both biodiversity and the country’s economy.

Manager of the Port Resolution Yacht Club on Tanna Island, Werry Narua said erosion from the cyclones has meant dugongs no longer appear in their tribal area, which used to attract tourists.

Manager of the Port Resolution Yacht Club, Werry Narua

“We used to have a lot of seagrass on the lagoon but because of the soil erosion, tidal waves and the big waves from the cyclones, which rooted all the seagrass and damaged the coral, we don’t have seagrass anymore so the turtle and dugong disappear,’ he said.

“These two mammals are very important in traditional culture so climate change is affecting the system of our culture.”

Mr Warua said the yacht club was founded and built using funds generated from keen tourists who paid to see a popular local dugong that once lived in the lagoon named ‘The King’.

For communities that still have dugongs in their tribal waters, the VESS have developed educational booklets and guidelines around how to interact with dugongs and their habitats.

Working alongside the Vanuatu Department of Fisheries and Environment the VESS team are hoping the guidelines can create real change in the way people behave in dugong territory.

“We’ve developed tourism guidelines because tourists are coming in and in some places they don’t do a proper tour with dugong,” Ms Tahi said.

“We’ve also worked with the Tourism Department so they can incorporate them into their work.” 

The VESS guidelines are to prevent dugongs from experiencing distress from human interaction, which can prevent them from returning to feeding grounds or not feeding enough, leading to sickness.

It is hoped locals, tourists and businesses abide by the rules to reduce the impact of human interaction with the dugongs.

These guidelines come as Dugongs were announced to be functionally extinct in China earlier this year, due to damage to seagrass beds.

Grassroots conservation thriving in local communities

VESS has also developed a set of booklets and guidelines for ni-Vanuatu communities to protect other vulnerable marine life.

Ms Tahi said the purpose of the initiative is to highlight the importance of the marine species and habitats that each community relies on and how climate change is affecting them.

“We’ve gone around the communities raising awareness about the dugongs and other marine species to increase the knowledge on the biology and the threats dugongs are facing,” Ms Tahi said. 

“We go and help them but we don’t take over.

“We give them the information, we encourage them to protect the threatened species and they use those tools to take care of their area and the threatened species in it.” 

Through grassroots education and engagement with VESS volunteers, each community carries the responsibility of managing vulnerable species themselves. 

Ms Tahi said the project is having early successes with community enthusiasm high.

“It has improved the knowledge of people and when they know there is an endemic species in their area they take pride and want to do something to protect the species,” she said.

Ms Tahi said it is about teaching but also learning from communities about how climate change impacts have affected their vulnerable species, fishing activities and food sources. 

“They know that we are depleting the resources and need to start protecting them, because populations are going down especially with the fish,” she said. 

VESS continues to monitor conservation sites around Vanuatu, with the Dugong Project initiatives expected to continue into 2023. 

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.

Leave a Reply