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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Harvesting Clams and Data

July 29, 2008

Involving local communities in monitoring can lead to conservation success in all sorts of unanticipated ways: A case in Fiji.

By Alifereti Tawake, John Parks, Pio Radikedike, Bill Aalbersberg, Veikila Vuki, and Nick Salafsky

Early one morning, a small group of Fijian villagers gathers on the beach. In front of them are the mudflats, mangroves, and coral reefs that make up their qoliqoli-their traditional community-owned fishing grounds that have sustained their village for generations. From a distance, they look just like other groups in the past that have gone out to harvest resources. But this group is carrying compasses, tape measures, metal quadrat frames, and clipboards. They are not going fishing. Instead, they are harvesting data to monitor the community-managed marine protected area that their village has established.

Too often, monitoring seems to be relegated to outside scientists who collect only data that interest them or complex data that cannot be used by resource managers and users. If there is one thing we have learned from our work in Fiji, it is that not only can communities do good monitoring, but also, ultimately, involving the community in monitoring leads to conservation success in all sorts of unanticipated ways.

The Ucunivanua Project

Our story begins in the early 1990s when residents of Ucunivanua village realized that the marine resources they depended on were becoming scarce. One example was the kaikoso, a clam found in the shallow mudflats and seagrass beds. Elders of the village remembered how in the past, a woman could go out and in a few short hours, collect several bags of large kaikoso for her family or market sale. Now, however, a woman could spend all day on the mudflats and end up with only half a bag of small clams.

About this time, we and other colleagues from the University of the South Pacific and the Biodiversity Conservation Network began a conservation project with the Ucunivanua community. In our planning meetings with the community, one problem that came up over and over again was the dwindling stocks of marine resources. One solution the community identified was to return to their traditional management practice of setting up tabu areas-regions of the qoliqoli that were temporarily closed to fishing. The community decided to experiment by setting up a 24-hectare tabu area on the mudflat and seagrass bed directly in front of the village in the hope that it would lead to increased clam harvests in the adjacent downcurrent areas.

The community appointed 20 men and women to be on the tabu area management team. The team first staked out the boundaries of the proposed protected area. They then worked with the paramount chief and elders of the village to hold a traditional ceremony declaring the area tabu for the following three years.

While the tabu area was being set up, we worked with the management team to develop and implement simple monitoring methods. Using pictures, stories, and examples, we discussed the theory of monitoring and the basic ideas of sampling and statistics. The team then practiced line transects, first on dry land and then in the water. They selected a random compass bearing within both tabu and non-tabu areas, laid out a tape measure, and then sampled the number of clams within a square meter quadrat at 10-meter intervals along the transect line for 500 meters. They measured each clam they found using a template that had different- sized holes. The team then recorded the numbers of clams they found in each size class in a logbook. Back on dry land, they analyzed their data using simple descriptive statistics.

Finally, after two weeks of training, the tabu area management team was ready to collect baseline data. They sampled the number and size of clams in both the designated tabu area and the adjacent downcurrent sites. The team monitored the sites twice in the first year and annually thereafter. Although we worked closely with team members, they did the monitoring work themselves. We also collected additional data to crosscheck the community team’s results.

Beyond the Conservation of Clams

Developing a successful tabu area and increasing clam populations are major accomplishments. The residents’ results show that both the numbers and size of clams have increased in the tabu areas and in the adjacent downcurrent harvest areas. The residents are also finding the biggest clams in three generations (more than 9 cm in diameter). But the most significant results of this project extend far beyond conservation of the clams. What we’ve witnessed is a conservation ripple effect radiating from the Ucunivanua tabu area across the Pacific.

On a local scale, because the monitoring work was fun and the residents were doing it themselves, the entire Ucunivanua community became invested in the tabu area. Each monitoring session was greatly anticipated, and people were very curious to get the latest results. Furthermore, once the community saw the effectiveness of the tabu area in increasing clam stocks on the mudflats, they decided to set up other tabu areas in their mangroves and coral reefs to protect one species of mud lobster, several species of sea cucumbers, and several coral reef fishes and invertebrates. The community is now working with the university researchers to develop monitoring systems for these areas.

By starting small and learning about the conservation benefits of locally managed marine reserves on their own, the community is beginning to increase the degree of protection over time-to the point where permanent no-take areas are becoming an option. The Ucunivanua community is now discussing the conversion of at least some of their limited-term tabu areas into permanent no-take areas.

On a broader scale, once word of the conservation success in Ucunivanua village spread, residents of the other seven villages in the district also began formally implementing tabu areas in their fishing grounds. This increased the total area of coastal habitat under protection in Verata from 1 km2 in 1997 to over 7 km2 by 2000. Furthermore, as the Ucunivanua management team began to talk about their work at various meetings in Fiji and as their results were published in the local media, residents of other communities across Fiji began to contact them to ask how to set up and monitor their own tabu areas. Today, there are similar customary marine reserve projects underway in four other sites across Fiji-over 15 km2 of protected coastal habitat. The Ucunivanua residents are in high demand to serve as trainers for these projects.

The Ucunivanua project also changed government policy. With our help, the team presented their results to fishery policy makers in the Fijian government. After they recovered from their surprise at being given scientific findings by community members, the government policy makers embraced the idea of adopting traditional Fijian customs to manage marine resources. As a result, the government recently developed a full-time program focusing on locally managed marine reserves within Fiji’s coastal waters.

Finally, the project team at Ucunivanua has helped promote locally managed marine reserves across the Pacific. They have joined forces with a number of projects across the region who have agreed to collect and share a common set of data. By pooling their data and experiences, they hope to learn more about the specific conditions under which locally managed marine reserves do or do not work, and why. The project teams also provide technical support to one another, thus extending the Ucunivanua approach. This group adaptive learning process is something we call a “learning portfolio.” (For more information, visit

Challenges of Community Monitoring

Intensive Training. Setting up the monitoring protocols and getting the community team familiar with them required a substantial investment of time and effort.

Frequent Follow-up. If the university scientists had just done the initial training and not come back, it is likely that the project would have fallen apart when the community encountered minor roadblocks. Instead, the researchers had regular meetings with the project team to discuss their successes and problems.

Assistance with Analysis. Although the community team became quite proficient at collecting data, analysis proved to be more difficult. They understood the results of the analyses but needed additional training to do the analysis themselves and to apply the results to management processes.

Despite these challenges, we feel the Ucunivanua project has been successful. Instead of outside researchers doing the monitoring and then reporting the results back to the community members (if they report at all), the community residents themselves were trained to harvest their own data alongside their clams.


We wish to thank the residents of Ucunivanua village for sharing their data and stories. We also thank R. Pomeroy of the World Resources Institute for reviewing a draft of this paper.

This paper is derived from A. Tawake’s master’s thesis at the University of the South Pacific.

Further Information

Biodiversity Conservation Network. 1999. Evaluating Linkages Between Business, the Environment, and Local Communities. Available at

Aalbersberg, W. G., J. E. Parks, D. Russell, and I. Korovulavula. 1999. In search of a cure: Bioprospecting as a marine conservation tool in a Fijian community. In Patterns in Conservation: Linking Business, the Environment, and Local Communities in Asia and the Pacific. Biodiversity Support Program, Washington, DC, USA. Available at

Biodiversity Support Program. 1998. Keeping watch: Experiences from the field in community-based monitoring. Lessons from the Field #1. Biodiversity Support Program, Washington, DC, USA. Available at

Parks, J. E. and N. Salafsky (eds.). 2001. Fish for the future? A collaborative test of locally managed marine areas as a biodiversity conservation and fisheries management tool in the Indo-Pacific region: Report on the initiation of a learning portfolio. Available at

About the Authors

Alifereti Tawake is a graduate student

Bill Aalbersberg and Veikila Vuki are professors at the University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji

John Parks is a researcher at the World Resources Institute, Washington, DC, USA

Pio Radikedike is a resident of the Ucunivanua Village, Verata, Fiji

Nick Salafsky is codirector of Foundations of Success, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.

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