Pandemic, climate threats and economic hardship in illegal sea cucumber harvesting on Ontong Java

by Ronald Toito'ona | 9 February 2021 | News

Low-lying Ontong Java is already severely affected by climate change. Photo: Iggy Pacanowski.

Honiara – As a result of the growing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the everyday challenges of climate change, some people of the Malaita Outer Islands (MOI) claim to have had no choice but to engage in illegal out-of-season harvesting of sea cucumbers and other marine resources as a means of survival. 

The MOI are part of the Solomon Islands province of Malaita.

One of the islands in the MOI group is Ontong Java Atoll. It is surrounded by a protective layer of coral reef which is closer to the Solomon Islands’ Roncador Reef than to the island of Malaita. It is regarded as one of the more remote places in Solomon Islands. Being an atoll, it has a very low elevation: its highest point is about 13 metres above sea level, so it is already severely affected by sea level rises and other effects of climate change. 

However, Ontong Java is rich in marine resources. Sea cucumber is a means of people obtaining their needs and wants, and making their livelihoods – and it has become the most cash-generating commodity, overtaking the two traditional cash commodities of fish and copra. 

With quick, huge cash to make in a short period, sea cucumber is arguably a blessing to the communities of Ontong Java.

The harvest period is controlled by the government. Most villagers go from “zero to hero” when the sea cucumber harvest opens. The sale of the smoke-dried sea cucumber to buyers who are mostly Asians helps bring much-needed cash into the communities. This has contributed enormously to the vibrancy and robustness of the atoll economy. During the harvest, there is enough money to go around as people have more to spend on their needs and wants. 

However, not all families and individuals have the foresight to save for a rainy day, or to use the blessings brought about by the sea cucumber trade to plan for their future. It is evident that poor financial management is widespread, and money drains out of the communities quicker than it comes in. 

According to one Solomon Star newspaper report, well over 80% of the people go on spending sprees as though there is no tomorrow. Hence, the COVID-19 pandemic is hitting the atoll economy hard, as villagers have not been able to sustain themselves, partly due to the low cash circulation. 

There are no longer grounds suitable for gardening as rising sea levels have eaten most of the soils that were once used to plant root crops and other produce. Peoples’ only means of survival now is to revisit their sea cucumber grounds. 

The reef needs the sea cucumbers, too: they are a vital contributor to reef health, filtering the water with their continual suck and blow, making a major contribution to water quality on reefs.

Honiara seizes illegally harvested sea cucumbers 

In early November 2020, officers from the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) confiscated sea cucumber stocks valued at over SBD$500,000 (USD$62,000) at the Honiara wharf. When the passenger vessel MV Onogou arrived from the atoll with a load of illegally harvested sea cucumbers, it was welcomed by an official raid.

The confiscated sea cucumbers were packed in pillowcases, bags, suitcases, and cartons. They were destined for local Asian buyers who operate illegally in the city.

MV Onogou on a trip to Ontong Java. Alongside it are the small outboard speedboats that locals use for transport. Photo: Iggy Pacanowski.
MV Onogou on a trip to Ontong Java. Alongside it are the small outboard speedboats that locals use for transport. Photo: Iggy Pacanowski.

It is understood that the current sea cucumber ban in Solomon Islands came into effect on 31 May 2019. The ban covers harvesting, possession, and selling of all sorts of sea cucumber species. 

This seizure was a slap in the face of the Ontong Javan people, with many calling for sympathy from the government in dealing with the matter, as they are finding it hard to cope with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We are caught up in a desperate dilemma, first with the ongoing impacts of climate change and now COVID-19 is further compounding the situation on the atolls,” one elder of Ontong Java told the Solomon Star.

“Can the government and responsible ministry show some leniency towards our people and allow them to sell their sea cucumber catches? We do not have plantations and enough land to plant food crops.

“All that we depend on for survival is our marine resources and sea cucumber is our lifeline at this point in time.”

Small speedboat moving through shallow atoll waters. Small outboards like this are the only means of transport between the islands of Ontong Java. Photo: Iggy Pacanowski.
Small outboards like this are the only means of transport between the islands of Ontong Java. Photo: Iggy Pacanowski.

An Ontong Java chief, Bartholomew Kokolopu, was also vocal. He said that, with the COVID-19 situation the country was facing, the Ministry of Fisheries should sympathise with the sea cucumber owners. 

He also blamed the fisheries ministry for ignoring a request made by the Ontong Java chiefs in 2018, when the government discussed how they could help the chiefs in raising awareness and explain the regulations to the people. But nothing forthcoming, he said.

“I was also one of the member delegation that travelled to Honiara twice to dialogue with the Director of Fisheries for a possible way forward for us, and for their officers to pay us a visit and educate our people about issues regarding the sea cucumber and its importance to the economy of Solomon Islands,” Chief Kokolopu said.

“In our discussion we told them that it will be effective once anybody from the office comes down to our people and tells them why the ban was imposed. Instead, our request fell on deaf ears.”

He said fisheries officers should at least work with the atoll chiefs so that any decision made was fair to them and the resources owners.

“Earlier this year we made a call to the fisheries again [to ask] if they could allow us some time do the harvesting just for our survival. They refused our request, and because of no other means we can earn money our people continue to harvest illegally,” the chief added.

Mr Kokolopu said that, as the fisheries ministry had refused to visit their communities and also refused to consider their call, they should be blamed for the people’s action.

“Since the fisheries office did not respond to our call, we, the resource owners ,decided that since the sea cucumbers are our property, we continue to harvest because it is our God-given resource,” Mr Kokolopu stated.

While Ontong Java is known as a hotbed for sea cucumber in the country, the trade needs to be regulated. Most importantly, the locals need to be protected from manipulation and abuse at the hands of Asians from the freedom to sell their products to buyers who offer the best price.

Public calls for review of law to reflect economic hardship

Following the unfortunate incident, Solomon Islands popular Facebook pressure group, the Yumi Toktok Forum, quoted outspoken Ontong Javan activist Lawrence Makili lashing out against the action, saying the action was killing his people, especially during this pandemic and the economic hardship it had brought. 

“We [Malaita Outer Islands] submitted a proposal for the Economic Stimulus Package (ESP) to support us in the sea cucumber harvesting and help contribute directly in stimulating the economy, but it was turned down. How can we survive during this pandemic and economic hardship?” he asked. 

Mr Makili also called on the Government to be lenient and help his people harvest and sell their products.

Other commentators have also highlighted that the enforcement of the law during the pandemic must not override the realities that struggling rural people are facing, and especially vulnerable communities such as those in the MOI. 

“While laws are there to keep peace and order, it is equally important not to jeopardize people’s welfare and livelihood,.” one commentator said 

“Laws are there for a reason – to provide boundaries from which we can all live, work safely and in harmony. But there comes a time when issues need to be viewed given realities pertaining to the issue itself. Much of Solomons is blessed within land and rivers that allow inhabitants to forage the forests and/or cultivate the land for nourishment and sales. 

“However, there is a minority which has very little arable land, such as Ontong Java. They rely entirely on the ocean for sustenance and income generation. From the ocean they build houses, pay for school fees, pay for medicine and so forth. 

“It’s realities like this that should be considered by authorities. The Ontong Java people do not demand special treatment; all they want is a fair go at life. It makes perfect sense to grant them the right and licence to harvest and export their sea cucumber resources. Similar to larger islands that have land and work the gardens for sustenance and sales, the ocean is the atoll’s ‘garden’. 

“The current law does not serve the wellbeing of MOI people. It marginalises them and denies them the right to their resources. Whose interest does the government actually serve?”

One commentator also suggested that special reviews on the sea cucumber ban should be considered to further contextualise the different situations of low-lying atolls and the livelihoods of the people living on them. These reviews should include the implications of climate change in the long run, when climate change had destabilised peoples means of sustaining themselves. 

“The early harvest of their sea resources strongly indicates a sign of desperation that they need financial support in exchange for their resources for sustainability purposes, especially during this pandemic,” the commentator said.

“I think the Fisheries Act does not have any provision to cater for any other circumstances, please revisit and make amendments.”

On some atoll islands, there are no grounds left that are suitable for gardening, as rising sea levels are taking soils that were once used to plant root crops and other produce. Photo: Iggy Pacanowski.

Government to implement sea cucumber management plan

In his final contribution in parliament last December, the Minister or Fisheries and Marine Resources, Nesto Ghiro, said his ministry had developed a national sea cucumber management plan that would be implemented soon.

Minister Ghiro told Parliament that it was their intention that management of the sea cucumber fishery be given to communities under their respective fisheries resource management plans, with the ministry assisting with technical and legal support.

He said their research on the production of juvenile or baby sea cucumbers through a hatchery breeding program was ongoing, and they were testing suitable locations.

“Work is ongoing in two locations in Marau, East Guadalcanal, Guadalcanal Province and Buena Vista Islands in Gela, Central Islands province” Mr Ghiro said.

He said this work was funded by the Japanese Overseas Fisheries Cooperation Foundation.

If successful, the project would contribute to the restocking of overfished reefs, and create economic opportunities for fishers and communities.