Livelihood vulnerability of coastal communities in Fiji and Solomon Islands to changes in reef resource availability and climate change


Fisheries support the livelihoods of millions of people globally. In the Pacific Islands most coastal communities have traditionally been highly dependent on marine resources. Coral reefs are particularly important to these communities as their main source of animal protein and livelihoods. Climate change and human-induced stresses have led to high mortality of coral reefs globally. These changes can lead to a decline in reef fisheries resources, thereby affecting the livelihoods of fisheries-dependent communities. The high dependence of coastal communities on marine resources potentially makes them highly vulnerable to any change in the status of these resources.

This research examined the livelihood vulnerability of coastal communities in Fiji and Solomon Islands to a decrease in reef resources resulting from social-ecological changes and the capacity of households and communities to cope with or adapt to these changes. Data from household interviews, key informant interviews and focus group discussions were collected using mixed methods from ten communities in Fiji and nine in the Solomon Islands.

Results of the interviews and focus group discussions were used to elucidate proximate and distal drivers of reef resource use in Fiji and Solomon Islands. The only proximate driver was access to new fishing gear and adoption of new fishing methods; while distal drivers included (1) requirements for food and income, (2) increase in population, (3) access to markets, (4) the need for monetary incomes to meet cultural and religious obligations, and (5) the importance of fishing as a way of life. These drivers maintain and increase fishing pressure on reef resources, interacting in sometimes complex ways that vary between the two countries and among communities.

Livelihood vulnerability was measured as a composite index, combining indices of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. Exposure relates to the condition of local reef resources, and was calculated based on fishers’ perceptions of the current condition of reefs and the likelihood of future coral bleaching under climate change scenarios. Sensitivity relates to the degree of dependency on these resources and the availability of alternative sources of income. Adaptive capacity was calculated based on access by households and communities to physical, natural, financial, human and social assets, as defined by the sustainable livelihoods framework.

Results highlight the contextual nature of livelihood vulnerability in the studied communities in Fiji and Solomon Islands. Aggregate scores for vulnerability to decreasing reef resources were determined primarily by exposure, and secondly by adaptive capacity. Most households and communities had access to other sources of income, in addition to fisheries. This was reflected in low scores for sensitivity, since households that have access to alternative livelihoods can be expected to be less affected by decreasing reef resources. However they would still experience impacts from decreasing reef resources and climate change, since fishing is still important for their livelihoods as a source of protein, as well as culturally and as a ‘way of life’. There was a high degree of heterogeneity in the livelihood vulnerability between countries, among communities in each country and among households within individual communities, although differences are not always apparent from a simple comparison of aggregate index scores.

Scores for adaptive capacity did not vary greatly between the two countries or among communities but, again, these similar aggregate scores masked considerable differences in the distribution of assets among communities. For example, several communities with good access to physical assets (i.e. infrastructure and material possessions) possessed few human and social assets, and vice versa. Farming was one of the main adaptation options for fishing communities, as an alternative livelihood if reef resources continue to decline. However results highlighted that the availability of alternative livelihoods is not a sufficient measure of capacity to leave fishery in the face of declining reef resources. The capacity and willingness of households to exit a declining fishery in the studied communities was influenced by the interaction of site-specific bio-physical, economic, cultural and social factors.

This study also examined the impacts of tropical cyclone Winston, which struck communities in Fiji while the fieldwork was being undertaken. The cyclone devastated infrastructure and agricultural systems in communities that, using the vulnerability index applied in this study, would be considered relatively resilient to declining reef resources. This shows the danger of ‘maladaptation’, where actions taken to avoid or reduce vulnerability to climate change impact adversely on, or increase the vulnerability of other systems, sectors or social groups. Moreover, adaptation options that work today may not be effective in the future.

The results of this livelihood vulnerability assessment of households and communities will assist decision makers in devising policies and measures to build adaptive capacity in fishing communities threatened by declining reef resources. In the short term, improved management and governance of reef resources in Fiji and Solomon Islands, particularly through the implementation of tabu areas (i.e. areas closed to fisheries) can mitigate declines in reef resources caused by overfishing. However, in the longer term, climate change poses an existential threat to coral reefs and marine resources and well as other livelihood resources such as crops for communities in Fiji and Solomon Islands.

Future coral bleaching events are expected to have a devastating effect on coral reefs in the region. However, the timing and extent of these events remain uncertain and possible mitigation measures may still be identified. Thus it makes sense to do everything possible to maintain the health of coral reefs and their fisheries, while ‘preparing for the worst’ by diversifying into alternative livelihoods, including—but not exclusively—agriculture. Increasing adaptive capacity is essential both to enable households and communities to cope with shocks when they occur, and to facilitate the adoption of alternative livelihoods that are less dependent on climate-vulnerable resources.