Papua New Guinea

Stories of Hope for Fish and People

The Conservancy is using science to empower people to protect coral reefs and fish.

Titans of the Coral Sea

Watch a video about the Titan people of the Coral Sea.


In Pere village the Conservancy is using science to empower people to protect coral reefs and fish that villagers rely on for food and income. Conservancy staffer Manuai Matawai grew up in Pere, so he knows well the challenges and opportunities facing this village — and others like it around the world.

Below, Manuai and Pere resident Ponawan Pokakes tell of the loss of old customs and threats posed by modern practices. But they also tell of hope — through wise choices, Pere is helping their burdened fish populations recover.

Ponawan Pokakes
Titan tribe, Kekwa clan

My ancestors followed the customs of Pere, the traditional ways. Only my clan would have the knowledge to catch groupers.*

Way back in the 1950s there were heaps of groupers and they weren’t afraid. You could see them in the shallow water. I would go on the canoe with my father, and he would make single prong spears and spear them. We would fill a hollowed out coconut shell with coconut oil. We would capsize a little bit into the water, and this would make the sea transparent. Then we would turn our canoe to the side, and you could look down and see the fish through the oil.

We wouldn’t get a lot of fish — a small amount for food only — and they weren’t for selling to get money. The next time we wanted this fish we would come back and get it

The new technologies, such as the spear-guns and underwater flashlights, they have ruined the reef. The fish are afraid and have moved into really deep water, and I can no longer use the traditional materials that my ancestors used. I don’t have my customs now. The resource has gone open access and anyone can go to the area and get this, and that’s why I think the respect of the custom before was very important.

To make the fish increase in abundance again, I think we can look at some ways of putting little bans on the sea — where we can’t fish it for several months, then afterwards open it for several months for catching fish for food purposes only, then close it again.

In the three months (March — May) when the fish are full of eggs, let’s leave them to release plenty of eggs. I think it will help the fish numbers recover. I think it’s a good idea to restrict some of the modern methods. Night spear-fishing — lets ban it. It ruins the sea and scares the fish.

All of us must agree and then we ourselves can be enforcement officers on the sea, survey the place and prevent anyone from destroying the reefs. This will require a lot of work, but we can educate our people about good ways. We have seen that the fish numbers have really come up since we placed some restrictions in 2004.

*Each Titan clan was entitled to catch certain types of fish and share with the entire village.

Manuai Matawai
Nature Conservancy Community Conservation Coordinator, Native of Pere village, Papua New Guinea

Since the time of our ancestors until today, groupers and many other species of reef fish have aggregated at the same reef to spawn. This reef is special — it isn’t like the other reefs. The spawning reefs are like maternity wards, if all the mothers go to the maternity ward to deliver, and you kill all these mothers, there won’t be any children. Here in Pere we have only one reef where this occurs.

I am part of this community that is heavily dependent on the sea for survival. When I started working with The Nature Conservancy it gave me access to information and technical expertise that could help my community look after our marine resources.

People are lacking food, lacking money and the sea is only road for finding these things. So when white men introduced fishing nets that were much stronger than traditional nets made from bush vines, people turned to the white man nets. In the past people dived using their legs only, but when diving fins became available, they tried them and said these are good, it’s really easy to go deep and catch fish.

People began hammering these fish at night, using underwater flashlights and spear-guns. At night these fish are like dead fish, like sea cucumbers — they aren’t afraid, so people would get heaps of fish. Outboard motors came, and now people don’t want to sail. Besides, today the canoe trees in the bush are running out — the size of the trees is decreasing, and people need big canoes now because they have to go to distant reefs to find fish.

But people from the community have come to realise that the fish are running out, so they are looking for ways to allow fish stocks to recover.

In 2004 the Conservancy came to Pere and talked with the community about the vulnerability of spawning reefs. Then the community themselves developed their own rules, including banning night spear-fishing with underwater flashlights. They also invited the Conservancy to monitor the spawning aggregation sites, and give the information back to them to guide their future decisions.

People can already see results. Young fishermen of my community see plenty of juvenile groupers on the small inshore reefs close to the mangroves and in the passages leading up to the spawning sites. Now the community wants to manage their other resources, such as sea cucumbers and trochus.

Manuai Matawai was born at Pere village on December 11th, 1969 to Karol Matawai and Shila Molong Kaloi. He grew up in Pere village and graduated with a Certificate/Diploma in Tropical Fisheries from National Fisheries College. From 1990 to 2004, he served as Fisheries Officer with the Manus Provincial Administration. Manuai has been working for The Nature Conservancy since 2004.

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