Meet the Sea Women of Melanesia

To most people, fins, masks and neoprene wetsuits are recreational gear. But to the non-profit group SeaWomen of Melanesia, this year’s Champion of the Earth for Inspiration and Action, they are the tools of change.

Clad in diving gear, the group’s 30-plus members chart the health of the fragile coral reefs that surround Melanesia, a grouping of island nations in the South Pacific. Their goal: teaching local women scuba diving and biology skills so they can monitor the health of coral reefs and create and restore marine protected areas.

“I remember the first time I went and talked to a fishing village to try and recruit some women to join our programme,” recalled Israelah Atua, a member of the SeaWomen. “They didn’t even want to hear us. But we convinced them that marine conservation is necessary to protect all of our livelihoods.”

The SeaWomen work in what’s known as the Coral Triangle, which covers some 5.7 million square kilometres between the Great Barrier Reef and the island archipelagos of Melanesia and South East Asia. Brimming with marine life, it is one of the world’s premier destinations for underwater tourism and home to a major fisheries industry. It is also exceptionally threatened by surging human populations and waste levels.

Coral reefs the world over are under siege from climate change, overfishing and pollution. Since 2009 alone, almost 14 per cent of the world’s corals have disappeared, according to a recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Many of those that remain are endangered.

Healthy reefs are critical to withstand climate change impacts, including ocean acidification and extreme events. But the report shows that, unless drastic action is taken to limit global warming to 1.5°C, a 70 – 90 per cent decrease in live coral on reefs could occur by 2050.

The good news is that coral reefs are resilient and can recover if the marine environment is safeguarded. The SeaWomen initiative, which is run by the Coral Sea Foundation, has since 2018 worked across the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to promote the restoration of coral reefs and support the establishment of no-fishing areas. It also supports marine protected areas in the two countries, to ensure there is abundant fish life for villagers to rely on in future.

The SeaWomen are simultaneously changing narratives about a woman’s role in her community and her opportunities for leadership.

“Having a woman in the community who can advocate for the marine reserve process and marine conservation, in a local language, is important to get the initial messages out about the importance of marine protected areas,” said Andy Lewis, the executive director of the Coral Sea Foundation. “There can be no conservation work done in these countries without explicit recognition of indigenous culture.”

For the SeaWomen, combining indigenous knowledge with science is central to their engagement with communities. Learning from community members about where fish are most plentiful at a certain time of year, or matching the colour change in coral reefs with underwater survey data, or understanding how tides may shift as a function of climate change is important to the outreach they do to demonstrate the value of preservation and marine protected areas.

But equally, the SeaWomen say, they are challenging indigenous conventions about a woman’s role in her household, community and society.

“When you train a woman, you train a society,” said Evangelista Apelis, a SeaWoman and co-director of the SeaWomen programme based in Papua New Guinea. “We’re trying to educate women, get women on board, so they can then go back and make an impact in their own families and their society as well.”

The SeaWomen undergo a rigorous marine science training, which is supplemented by practical training in reef survey techniques and coral reef ecology. Then they learn to dive.

“What I love most about my job is being able to experience the beauty of the underwater world,” said Apelis. “Before going down, you just imagine all sorts of things but the reality is even more mesmerizing – the fish, the shipwrecks… it’s like everything just came alive.” Each of the SeaWomen is supported through internationally recognized scuba diving certification and taught how to use GPS, underwater cameras and video to survey fish and coral populations on the Coral Triangle’s reefs. Their work since 2018 has led to proposals for more than 20 new marine protected areas in the waters of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

“Coral reefs are a sanctuary for marine life and underpin the economies of countless coastal communities,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP’s Executive Director. “Coral reefs are vital to the future of our planet and the work done by the SeaWomen to safeguard these beautiful, diverse ecosystems is nothing short of inspirational.”

For Naomi Longa, a team leader for the SeaWomen in the West New Britain Province of Papua New Guinea, helping create marine reserves means that she is not only a leader in her community but also setting a course for the future. As population pressures on land add to the stress on the sea, the marine reserve programme is an investment into long-term well-being for communities vulnerable to stresses and shocks.

“We are actually saving food for the future generation,” she said. “There are species dying out, so some of the species that are living in those marine reserves may be the only species left when our future generations are born.”

The United Nations Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth and the Young Champions of the Earth recognize individuals, groups and organizations whose actions have a transformative impact on the environment. Presented annually, the Champions of the Earth award is the UN’s highest environmental honour.

The United Nations General Assembly has declared the years 2021 through 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations together with the support of partners, it is designed to prevent, halt, and reverse the loss and degradation of ecosystems worldwide. It aims at reviving billions of hectares, covering terrestrial as well as aquatic ecosystems. A global call to action, the UN Decade draws together political support, scientific research, and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration. Visit www.decadeonrestoration.org to learn more.

This article was supplied by Coral Seas Foundation and originally published on UNEP.org