What does the future hold for Pacific Island biodiversity?

Spectacular marine diversity in the Namena Marine Reserve. Photo (c) Lill Haugen

Spectacular marine diversity in the Namena Marine Reserve. Photo (c) Lill Haugen

I have spent a lot of time this year thinking about the fate of Pacific Island biodiversity.Thoughts of falling trees and fish gasping for breath actually keep me up at night – not because I’m a tree-hugging greenie, but because I am grappling to find solutions for how Pacific Islanders can use their natural resources sustainably.

In putting together a special issue of Pacific Conservation Biology on “Conservation of Biodiversity in the Pacific Islands of Oceania”, I had quite a bit of time to reflect on the main drivers of biodiversity loss in our region.

Our islands are plagued with invasive species. In fact, on many islands the number of introduced plants now equals or exceeds native species. Predatory animal invaders have decimated bird populations. Even more insidious, species introductions are often coupled with new pathogens and disease that can have massive impact on agricultural production. For example, fungal leaf blight has wreaked havoc on native varieties of taro in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Samoa.

Ground nesting crested terns  off Vanua Levu, Fiji. Photo (c) Stacy Jupiter

Eggs and chicks of ground nesting birds, like these crested terns, are highly vulnerable to predation by invasive mammals. Photo (c) Stacy Jupiter

At the same time, Pacific forests and fisheries are disappearing out from under our noses, both to provision and feed Pacific people and the world. Natural resources are being extracted at unprecedented rates due to increased consumer demand, improvements in technology, high levels of poverty and few alternatives, and poor or corrupt governance systems. We are in the middle of a development boom. And while there exist many multilateral treaties and regional strategies to control pollution, reduce habitat loss and degradation and mitigate climate change and disaster risk, the enthusiasm by which these instruments have been adopted has yet to be matched with equal attention to implementation, monitoring and enforcement.

So what can we do? Throw our hands up and moan? Being a grumpy grouch usually doesn’t get you that far.

We need to get people involved – bring conservation to the public – show people why they should care. As my co-author Richard Kingsford and I wrote in our editorial:

“Conservation cannot be successful as a perceived pursuit of an ideological few intent on saving every part of this planet. The majority will needs to prevail for effective conservation action.”

Engaging people at the local scale is already occurring across the western Pacific through locally-managed marine areas (LMMAs), which build on Pacific cultural traditions of stewardship over the land and sea. There are hundreds of communities actively involved in the LMMA network, and thousands more who are implementing management on their own.

But how can we start thinking about scaling up local action to achieve broader outcomes across a scale that is meaningful for biodiversity? Well, we’ve had a think about that too. Recognizing a lack of replicability, sustainability and cost-effectiveness in many expensive pilot projects that have been trialled over the decades in the Pacific, we’ve developed a set of principles for integrated island management.

Integrated island management calls for coordinated networks of institutions and local communities that span across species’ habitats from land to sea and connect various stakeholders to develop common goals. Through participatory visioning and management, groups who might outwardly seem to have opposing objectives (e.g. commercial fishermen and recreational divers) may see that they have common interests, for example, in maintaining source populations of fish stocks to support livelihoods and biodiversity conservation.

Maintaining fish stocks may require regulation of land-based activities. For example, new work from Solomon Islands suggests that sedimentation from logging activity has severely affected the nursery habitat of bumphead parrotfish, a large commercial fishery. Better regulation of logging activity and restoration of waterways may have the double benefits of improving downstream fisheries and maintaining clean water for drinking and health.

Solutions for Pacific biodiversity conservation will require people to step out of their comfort zones and think outside of the box. We will need to embrace new relationships with industry. Given the importance placed by Pacific Island governments on economic development, economic incentives and market-based solutions, where appropriate, can encourage and support sustainable use of natural resources and reduce waste. Managers, decision-makers and local communities need to be better informed about the options for actions and consequences of their choices, and better recognize the close relationship between the environment, social systems and the economy in the Pacific.