Joel Araea owns the kind of tropical atoll that resort developers dream about. But as a subsistence fisherman, he couldn’t afford a boat, much less the fuel, to visit Grace Island – despite its relative proximity to his village. Joel lives on Nuakata – one of a grouping of three islands in Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Until recently, marine resources in the surrounding waters were in sharp decline. “I used to dive for sea cucumber and fish with nets,” he says. “But it got more and more difficult.”
Today Joel is a Community Monitoring Officer. He’s responsible for data gathering and enforcement in a Marine Protected Area (MPA) managed by the communities living on the three islands, Nuakata, Iabam and Pahelele. The MPA includes 28 monitoring stations spread across 16 different reefs, eight of them inside a No Take Zone. One of them is located at Grace Island. “Before the MPA, it was impossible to stop outsiders fishing without permission on the reef there,” Joel explains. Now, we patrol the MPA regularly and rarely find boats fishing illegally.”
Joel and his colleagues have been successful in socializing their MPA with the surrounding communities, so that they understand the positive impacts of conservation on their future food security. They’ve been able to combine traditional skills with scientific knowledge to gain a better understanding of their local environment. They’ve also been able to witness firsthand the benefits of protection, from extensive new coral growth to dramatic increases in the number of sea cucumbers and fish species both inside and outside the boundaries of the MPA.
Joel is excited about everything he has learned since joining the Community Monitoring Team. He now has an encyclopedic knowledge of the species that inhabit the local marine ecosystem. He knows how to monitor shallow water transacts and next year, he and the rest of the CMT will learn how to dive so they can do deep water transacts too. They’re also developing computer skills so that they can effectively log data.
Financial and technical support for these kinds of locally driven projects is helping to secure the preservation of a high value ecosystem and the livelihoods of the communities that depend on it. Once Joel and the team are fully versed in contemporary conservation techniques, they will be able to manage the MPA independently. Already, neighbouring communities are asking about the possibility of setting up their own MPA’s to ensure the long-term viability of their fisheries.
Joel’s long-term goal is to combine his newfound skills to set up an eco-tourism operation on Grace Island – he sees conservation as the first step in achieving this. There is already a successful dive operation nearby and Milne Bay is one of the most popular destinations in Papua New Guinea. “My grandfather brought this island for an axe many years ago. My dream is to set up a dive resort – to run my own business now that I’m learning all these new things.”