August 31, 2011

Reef Checks with OceansWatch in Vanuatu


By Grace Phillips, Vanuatu Project Leader, OceansWatch

Vanuatu is a wondrous land of dense tropical forests, hidden villages, golden beaches and ancient kastom traditions. Below the surface of its Coral Sea waters it is just as magical. Untouched reefs abound with fish and turtles, sea snakes slither amongst the hard coral, and dolphins cruise the crystal clear depths. A marine environment this pristine, belonging to the ni-Van population of a mere 250,000, is certainly worth protecting. This is what draws OceansWatch to Vanuatu each year.

OceansWatch is a New Zealand based non-profit organisation, which draws scientists, divers, and sailors together to interact with coastal communities in developing nations throughout the world to promote marine awareness, conservation and sustainable uses of their marine resources. The use of a 34ft yacht named ‘Magic Roundabout’ allows the OceansWatch team to visit islands and villages further afield and usually often out of range of government projects and other NGOs.

One aspect of OceansWatch’s work is to conduct Reef Check surveys in each community. On arrival in Vanuatu at the beginning of June, the OceansWatch Vanuatu team began Reef Check training with Katie Thomson, the Reef Check Vanuatu coordinator. Katie has been working in Vanuatu for 5 years, conducting training workshops in villages nation-wide to empower the communities to monitor their own reefs. The reefs are controlled by family groups or villages as an extension of land-ownership, rather than by the government. When carrying out Reef Check surveys at the community reefs, OceansWatch encourages the participation of trained locals. We’ve found that a great way to involve the non-trained locals is to get them to drop the plumb line on the substrate survey or to spot the invertebrates for us – it’s amazing how proficient they are!


Almost half way through the season, the OceansWatch Vanuatu team has already visited 4 communities in the southern islands of Vanuatu and conducted 10 Reef Check surveys. The main finding that stands out is the good health of the coral. We have observed little to no bleaching or disease on the reefs and low anthropogenic impacts such as anchor damage or dynamite fishing. Aside from the reefs around the islands of Nguna and Pele, the southern reefs appear free from devastating Crown of Thorns starfish outbreaks, which are causing some concern in areas further north in Vanuatu. The reef substrate mostly consists of hard coral (Acropora and Pocillopora, and some large specimens of slow growing species) and a lot of rock, with a low percentage of soft coral. However, we have encouragingly found extremely little nutrient indicator algae, possibly thanks to the low levels of coastal development and the absence of flushing toilets and agricultural run-off. This, coupled with low levels of sediment and coral rubble, should lend a hand in successful coral larval settlement in the years to come.

Interestingly, invertebrates have been fairly absent on the surveys. The most common invertebrates we’ve found have been sea-cucumbers and pencil urchins. Reef Check Vanuatu surveys also include local indicator species such as Trochus and Green snail (large molluscs which are harvested for food). The presence of Trochus has been sporadic throughout the islands but not one Green snail has been spotted, which is cause for some concern.

An absence of large fish has been noticed on a lot of the reefs but small parrotfish are plentiful throughout, as are butterfly fish. Surgeonfish, an algal grazer and another Reef Check Vanuatu indicator species, are also high in numbers which may contribute to the low levels of algae. Despite the absence of large reef fish, several white tip reef sharks and larger specimens such as a big Lemon shark and a Leopard shark have been observed, which is great to see as they have been fished out of most reefs globally.


Vanuatu is at the forefront of marine conservation. Every village we have visited so far has set aside at least one, but often several, marine tabu areas (areas of restricted fishing, harvesting and anchoring to varying degrees of protection). Most of the tabu areas have been set up out of the communities’ own initiative and although they may not be internationally recognised conservation areas, they still do the same job! The Vanuatu government has no idea how much of the country’s reefs are protected in this way, and this is one task that OceansWatch is helping them with this year – to map any tabu areas we come across. The sheer number of them is so wonderful to see! And by conducting Reef Check surveys inside and outside of tabu areas, we are hoping to build up a picture of how effective they are… so far the reefs are some of the most pristine I have ever seen!

OceansWatch has a few more months left in Vanuatu this season, and we are looking forward to carrying out more Reef Check surveys on the beautiful reefs surrounding the islands of this amazing country.

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