Vanuatu starts the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project Activities

January 01, 2016

The launch of the National Vanuatu Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project was held on 3rd December, heralding the kick-off of project activities. The event created significant interest in the media with a half page story in the Daily Post, the country’s only daily newspaper, and mentions on national TV and radio news, in news blogs and in the tourism industry newsletter.

The launch event was held at Chantilly’s Hotel and attended by 58 people, leaving standing room only at the back of the conference room. Trinison Tari, the Acting Director of the Department of Environmental Protection and Conservation (DEPC) gave some opening remarks, saying he was looking forward to his department working together with The Vanuatu Environmental Science Society (VESS) and the Department of Fisheries on this global project. Dr. Christina Shaw, CEO of VESS, then gave a presentation on dugongs and seagrass generally and what we know about them in Vanuatu, followed by an overview of the GEF project in Vanuatu. The project will focus its efforts on collecting baseline data to understand the current status of dugong and seagrass in Vanuatu, and to raising local awareness on their importance and how to protect them both.

The following week VESS held a workshop to train the national survey team. The team will spend next year (2016) conducting the Standardised Dugong Catch / By-catch Questionnaire Survey. In preparation for the survey, the questionnaire has been translated to Bislama and some questions relating to dugongs and tourism have been added. Technical expert, Dr. Nick Pilcher, came to Vanuatu to conduct the workshop, which was held at The Havannah Resort.

Dugongs are regularly seen just off the beach at The Havannah but unfortunately they did not make an appearance whilst we were there. The workshop was attended by 20 VESS volunteers, as well as staff from DEPC and VESS, and were all entertained by Nick as he explained the questionnaire and how to obtain the most useful data from it. In the afternoon of the first day the new survey team practiced conducting surveys on each other. The next day we headed a little further along the shore of Havannah harbour to the village of Tanoliu where the team asked ‘real’ people the questions. 16 surveys were conducted marking the beginning of data collection for the Vanuatu Project. Each interviewee was rewarded with a couple colourful posters about dugong and threatened species, adding to the awareness of dugong conservation already generated by the presence of the survey team.

As Vanuatu has a reputation for having friendly dugong, Nick Pilcher was lured by the idea of trying to photograph dugongs whilst he was visiting Vanuatu. Christina, therefore, arranged a flight up to Lamap on the island of Malakula, where a dugong canoe tour is based. Joseph, the owner of the dugong tour, and his team met us at the airport. They were quite excited to see us as they had heard the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project was starting on the radio the week before. They took us in a traditional outrigger canoe to Gaspard Bay to see the dugongs. And there were dugongs! First we heard them snorting and then we saw a nose or a back breaking the surface and an occasional tail slap. We estimated there was 10 to 20 dugongs in the mangrove edged bay but with the visibility in the water of about half a meter the conditions were not good for photography.

Flying out we circled over the bay and could see the dugong, including at least 3 mother/calf pairs. The next day Christina took Nick to another spot close to Port Vila where dugongs are regularly seen by kayakers and suffers. This time the water was crystal clear and we could see that the seagrass beds were the perfect feeding habitat for the dugongs. But unfortunately no dugongs turned up for their portrait to be taken. We might not have managed it this time but sometime over the lifetime of the project we hope to get those elusive close-up dugong pictures!

To make the most of Nick’s expertise and experience, he was invited to attend a meeting of the project’s National Facilitating Committee (NFC). The NFC in Vanuatu is made up of representatives from government departments and NGOs concerned with the conservation of dugongs and seagrass in Vanuatu. Discussions were had about the project as well as opportunities to seek additional funding to expand the scope of the project in Vanuatu. The chairperson and CMS Dugong Focal Point, Trinison Tari, expressed his thanks to Dr. Pilcher for assisting Vanuatu in this project. He also said that he found the meeting useful to enhance the collaboration between departments and between the departments and the NGOs.

Vanuatu’s project is now up and running and we are looking forward to implementing all our activities over the next 3 years.

The Vanuatu Environmental Science Society (VESS) is the implementing partner and both the Department of Environmental Protection and Conservation and the Vanuatu Fisheries Department are supporting partners for the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project in Vanuatu.