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Marine resources make their return in Vava’u

Members of the Ovava community in Vava'u after their meeting with the Marine Spatial Planning team late last year. Photo: ENVIRO NEWS


 NEIAFU, Vava’u – January 7, 2019: 9.55am (Nuku’alofa Times): Mullets were caught on the shorelines of islands around Vava’u around 50 years ago.

But since then the favourite fish with locals around the Northern Islands of Tonga had disappeared, with many thinking they would never return.

However, since the islands started implementing the community managed Special Management Areas (SMAs) program around five years ago the mullets and other marine resources are starting to slowly make their return.

Ovava men discussing plans with the Fisheries Officer in Charge in Vava'u Silika Ngahe. Photo: ENVIRO NEWS

Ovava men discussing plans with the Fisheries Officer in Charge in Vava’u Silika Ngahe. Photo: ENVIRO NEWS

The people of Vava’u have given the proposed Marine Spatial Plan their overwhelming support.

One such island that is now recording the return of the mullets is Ovaka.

Town Officer and local businessman Ulaiasi Vaisima said they can testify to the success of the SMAs program, which has now resulted in the mullets returning.

“Fifty years ago we used to have kanahe (mullet) around our island shores. Then they disappeared and during our lifetime we did not see that again,” he said in Neiafu during an interview.

“Now after the SMA was implemented we now have kanahe returning to our shores and we are indeed grateful.

“So for us the people of Ovaka we support the program because we already know the benefits it will bring to our people and our nation as a whole.”

His sentiments were shared by ‘Ofu islander Tevita Poasi.

Tevita is a fisherman and his daily routine takes him around the islands of the Vava’u group from Monday to Friday.

“We used to have fish on our shorelines back when we were young but then they started disappearing,” he said.

“We started implementing the SMA program five years ago and now we are seeing the benefits. This is amazing that we can now see fish in many different species coming back and off course the seashells, seaweeds and other marine resources that our forefathers used to live on years back.”


 The SMAs program

So what is the SMA program?

Principal Fisheries Officer Dr Siola’a Malimali of the Department of Fisheries here in Nuku’alofa said the program is a partnership between the Government and communities.

“The SMA program is basically a community management program that gives the community the opportunity to manage their local marine resources,” Dr Malimali said.

“We work with the communities in educating them on what the program is all about, help them identify what areas they want to manage and help them in the initial set up of the program in their management area.

“So what this is basically is identified areas along the community’s inshore area where they want to manage, which means they would like to stop fishing activities in the area for a certain period.”

Within the SMAs are what is called the “No Take Zones”.

These zones are marked and no one is allowed to swim, walk into, fish or take anything out of the area.

“What we basically aim to achieve with the SMAs is have the marine life in the area replenished so that we can have new growths with the fish species, seaweeds, seashells and all marine life in the area,” Dr Malimali explained.

“This would help in replenishing the stock and off course for example fish from the area will also then move to other areas that are not included in the SMAs and communities from those area benefit as well by having fish that had disappeared for some time.”

Fisheries consultant and a former Fisheries Director here in Tonga Dr Vailala Matoto said there was a need to implement the SMAs because marine resources were now in demand more than ever before.

“Before families needed marine resources only for themselves or for their church functions or events such as weddings, funerals or birthdays,” Dr Matoto said.

“But over the years a lot more activities are happening and the demand has grown so much. We now have commercial fishing for local and overseas sale.

“So the demand have jumped and this has seen the decreases in supplies because those going out are getting in matured and young species all at the same time.

“So we have to right the situation and having the SMAs means young species get the chance to grow and become mature and also the chance to reproduce.”


Communities benefit

The Govenor of Vava’u, Lord Fakatulo, told this reporter in an interview that communities around the island have stories of what it used to be like 50 to 60 years ago.

“Back then our families used to have so much from the sea. There was enough for everything we needed,” he said.

“But our generation can testify to the fact that marine resources began to disappear. Before our people used to just fish close to their villages on the different islands but in the last 15 years they have had to travel far our to sea to get good catches.

“Our women folks used to just walk close by the shorelines to get seaweed, seashells and other marine resources but these had also disappeared over time.

“Now we are beginning to hear very good stories from the same islands and villages. The fish are returning and so are other marine resources.”

Vava’u Tourist Association’s Phil Davis said the SMAs have become an important tool for managing local marine resources.

“We support it because we believe it is important in managing marine resources in Tonga and helping in replenishing what many have lost over the years,” Mr Davis said in Neiafu.

The VTA said by having SMAs local communities can also enjoy benefits from the tourism industry, especially with possible marine tours by tourists who visit the areas.

“With the possibility of coral reefs being included in some of these special management areas that can become tourist attractions because tourists who come to the islands want to see what marine life is like under the surface.

“And having these projects would certainly earn local communities income that can benefit them.”

The other direct benefit for the communities could also come from possible whale watching in their management areas as whales, which normally visit Vava’u waters annually from July to October, could end up in this areas because they are not disturbed.

“So having whale watching in these areas would mean extra income for the local communities,” Mr Davis added.

Vava’u Pearl Farmer Penisimani Lolohea said the MSA will become an important tool in ensuring that Tonga has a sustainable ocean and marine resources in future.

He said current use needs to be managed so that everyone is able to enjoy the benefits, while at the same time we are able to sustain our resources for the future generations.

“We see that there is a lot of activities being carried out in our oceans and we are using our marine resources throughout the year,” he said.

“Now we see that some of our marine resources have become scarce and lost. We need to bring these back and to have a proper management plan would be the best way to go.”

Sixty five year old Siname Talasinga of ‘Olo’ua island said she has seen the changes over her lifetime.

“I have seen what we used to have in the past, and seen them disappear. Now I see them returning and I am so grateful that there were some wise people who thought about this SMA program to be implemented,” the grandmother said.

“Now we know that we can manage our marine resources so that they do not all die out and we have new growths also.”



The reduction in the population of marine resources can be attributed to many different factors.

Increased in demand, as Dr Matoto stated, is one major impact.

Others include the fact that there is also climate change effects, which includes sea level rise in some areas; environment pollution especially with plastic bags and bottles that have polluted seas around the island, spills from rain water off land and fertilizers that farmers use inland washing offshore; cutting of mangroves around the beachfront, thus destroying breeding grounds for fish such as mullets and other marine species;  and washing of soil into the sea from hills and mountains on some of the islands.

“There are many factors that affect the life of marine resources and we have to work with other stakeholders in ensuring that we can control what we can control,” SMA Officer with the Fisheries Department Latu Aisea said.


Government plans

The Tongan Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Hon Poasi Tei, said his ministry had teamed up with the Department of Fisheries in implanting the program nation-wide.

“Now we have 25 SMAs around Tonga and more villages have indicated their interest to join the program because they now see the benefit others are reaping,” Hon Poasi said.

“Government is keen to work with communities around Vava’u and Tonga as a whole in ensuring that local communities can manage their own marine resources because in the long term they will benefit from the program by having their marine resources returning.”

Government hopes that majority of the islands in the different island groups in Tonga will have the SMA program implemented around their local areas.

Fisheries Officer Dr Malimali said they have seen the benefits and are keen to see more communities involved.

“It is a win win situation for all involved and we would want others to benefit as well,” he added.

For the people of Vava’u the program has become a life saver so to speak.

They are reaping the early benefits and are all for managing what they have now for a sustainable future for their children and grandchildren.

“This is now our plan, around the islands in Vava’u, to manage our resources so that we can have them for those who are coming behind us,” Govenor Lord Fakatulo added.

“The mullets are here to stay in Vava’u.”

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