Around the INDO-PACIFIC, as part of an international effort called the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project, people and organisations are being mobilised to help protect dugongs and their habitats. SDAA talked to Christina Shaw of the Vanuatu Environmental Science Society (VESS), one of the smallest of these initiatives, about what it means to be working on the front line of the fight to protect these wonderful creatures.

1.Why is it important to better understand and protect dugongs and their habitats? And why is it important in Vanuatu specifically?

Dugongs are iconic marine mammals and we have a duty to ensure they do not become extrinct. Dugongs live around the coasts and are at risk because they are competing with humans in the same ecosystems.

Vanuatu is the most easterly country of the dugong’s range, and we think that here there are perhaps not quite as many threats to them (such as habitat loss) as in other industrialised countries or countries with higher populations.

Vanuatu might be one of the places that gives them a better chance of survival. But we don’t know how many are here, and so we don’t know if the population will be too small to survive or whether there is a realistic chance we could be a haven for future generations of dugongs.

Seagrass beds have a hugely important role in the ecosystem as fish nurseries, coastal protection and carbon skinks to help mitigate the effects of climate change. Many people in Vanuatu live a subsistence lifestyle, near the coast, and rely on natural resources for food. Ensuring seagrass beds, along with coral reefs and mangroves, stay healthy in Vanuatu is important for security.

2.How did you get into dugong research and conservation?

I came to live in Vanuatu seven years ago to work as a vet and was going scuba diving at the weekends. Occasionally a dugong would join us on a dive and it was an amazing experience sharing the water with one of these iconic gentle giants.

Dugongs here have a reputation for being more friendly than they are in other places, possibly because they don’t face many threats. They seem curious and will often stick around for several minutes, even going to the surface and coming back after they have taken a breath. The surfers see the dugongs regularly in one of the villages just outside the capital, Port Vila.

When I decided to stay in Vanuatu indefinitely, I completed a masters in Veterinary Conservation Medicine and wanted to move into work in conservation. Dugongs were one of the threatened species in Vanuatu I had always hoped to work with. 

It just so happened that the Global Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project was about to begin and I met Donna Kwan from the dugong CMS MoU (Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals Memorandum of Understanding) Secretariat who was looking for partner organisations in Vanuatu to implement the project here.

We don’t have many conservation NGOs in Vanuatu and none that had a focus on science. So I set up a new organisation (with funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund) and VESS was born. We were then asked by the Department of Environmental Protection and Conservation, Vanuatu (DEPC), and the Vanuatu Fisheries Department (VFD), if we could implement the project here with DEPC and VFD as project partners. So that is what we’re doing!

Since living here, my fiancé has become one of the owners of the Big Blue dive shop (which is where we met) and we still dive with the dugongs sometimes.

Read the rest of this article in Issue 5/2016 No.87 of Scuba Diver magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.

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