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8. Conservation/Resource Management Measures

On current indications the coconut crab population on Niue is in decline and is nearing the MVP level. Introduction of immediate conservation/management measures are essential if the future of the crab on Niue is to be assured.

The slow growth and sporadic recruitment of coconut crabs (Fletcher et. al. 1991) makes them susceptible to even low levels of sustained exploitation. Although lacking detailed data, the 1988 report on the pilot stock-survey of coconut crabs on Niue correctly concluded that the coconut crab was suffering from over-exploitation and that immediate remedial conservation measures were required. The report made the following recommendations (summarised):

  1. No egg-bearing females to be taken or interfered with.

  2. Introduction of a minimum legal size for all coconut crabs of 30mm thoracic length.

  3. Major coastal spawning areas be closed to public access (ie. made tapu) from December to March inclusive. In the absence of detailed knowledge of major coastal spawning areas, it is suggested that the following coastal regions be subject to closure - Vaikona, Togo, Mata Point to Limufaufua Point and Anaana Point to Tamakautoga. As major spawning areas are identified, the restricted areas can be adjusted accordingly.

  4. Extension of the Huvalu Forest tapu area to include the coastal forest east of the road to the coast. It is essential that coconut crabs have broad access to the coast. Extension of the tapu area could be made seasonal, from December to March.

  5. Cessation of coconut crab exports.

  6. Instigation of a public awareness campaign, using radio and the local newspaper Tohi Tala Niue, informing Niueans of the seriousness of the coconut crab problem, and of the need to abide by government restrictions on crab capture and export.

Unfortunately none of the above recommendations were acted upon.

The detailed information on coconut crab population dynamics arising from this present study supports all of the above initial recommendations, although with some refinements and clarification. The revised conservation/Resource management recommendations are:

1. No female coconut crabs with large orange-tinted abdomens or bearing external eggs to be taken or interfered with.

Ultimate survival of the coconut crab population depends on the ability of the available reproductively active females to successfully release their eggs into the ocean. Females with large orange-tinted abdomens (signalling the presence of ripe ovaries filled with immature eggs) or carrying external eggs are considered as a delicacy by much of the local populace. This practice should be abolished.

2. Introduction of a minimum legal hunting size of 36mm thoracic length for all coconut crabs.

Although the MVP requirement is that females of at least 32mm TL be present, it is prudent to have a minimum size significantly larger than the MVP requirement. On consultation with Ms Sisilia Talagi (Director, Niue Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) it was agreed that in order to ensure that the coconut crab population was given every assistance to increase in size, the recommended minimum size should be such that all females would in effect be protected. On this basis a 36mm TL was chosen as the appropriate minimum size given that no females on Niue were recorded with a TL larger than this.

During the later half of 1991 it was proposed that a plastic size-guide be produced for distribution on Niue to assist coconut crab hunters in determining whether captured crabs were of ‘legal’ size. This proposal was agreed to by both DAFF and the FAO funding body and a total of 500 guides were produced in Brisbane, Australia, based on a design developed by this author. The minimal instructions for use were printed on the guide's upper surface in the form of a diagram and text. Two versions were designed, one using Niuean language and the other English, with 250 copies of each produced. The sizing guides were constructed of dark yellow plastic with text and diagrams in dark blue, reflecting the national colours of Niue. The guides are to be made freely available to all coconut crab hunters and it is anticipated that they will act as a highly visual reminder of the plight of the coconut crabs as well as having the practical role of a field-based sizing tool. The guide is extremely quick and easy to use and removes totally any ambiguity in deciding whether a crab is under or over the legal size limit. Specifications and text/diagram design are included as appendix 1.

3. Banning of all coconut crab exports.

In its present circumstance the coconut crab population cannot support any form of export-based exploitation. As indicated in section 3.3 the problem now facing the coconut crab on Niue can be traced back to the commencement of crab exports to New Zealand in 1970.

The coconut crab is an important cultural food for Niueans, particularly so in the case of expatriate Niueans resident in New Zealand and demand from this community for coconut crabs is high. However it is suggested that continuation of exports will negate the effect of other conservation/management measures instigated. Consequently total cessation of coconut crab exports must constitute the primary component of introduced conservation/management measures.

If complete cessation of coconut crab exports to New Zealand is strongly opposed by the Niuean cabinet and/or people and cannot be introduced, then a quota system should be instigated. A government body, such as the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, would control the export of coconut crabs. This would ensure that only legal size crabs were exported, as well as enabling records to be kept of exact numbers of crabs exported. It is proposed that the government would buy crabs from local hunters and then resell them, at a profit, to expatriate Niueans in New Zealand. The number of crabs exported annually would be strictly controlled and would be based on data from the proposed population monitoring programme (refer section 9). Coconut crabs should only be exported to expatriate Niueans. No private export of crabs should be permitted. It is stressed that every effort must be made to stop the export of coconut crabs; if this is not possible then this proposal should be considered.

4. Introduction of closed hunting seasons.

During the major reproductive period November to March coconut crab females congregate in selected near-shore habitats to incubate their eggs prior to hatching the eggs into the ocean (Schiller 1988a, 1988b; Schiller et. al. 1991). Following egg release the females migrate back to their usual habitats. Hunting of crabs either while they are grouped near the sea or are migrating back inland should be prevented by the imposition of closed hunting seasons over the reproductive period in selected coastal regions. Investigation of coconut crab reproductive activity in coastal regions of Niue during the pilot-stock survey in 1988 identified several areas ‘preferred’ by coconut crabs to release their eggs. During the 1990 survey this list of egg releasing areas was augmented through anecdotal evidence gained during discussions with many of Niue's crab hunters. On this basis it is recommended that the following areas seaward of the 175m contour line be closed with respect to coconut crab hunting during the period November to March inclusive (in decreasing order of importance):

  1. From Tuapa Point to Tuo (ie. the entire east coast).
  2. From Vaiopeope to Hikutevake.
  3. From Tafalalo to Avatele.

The proposed closures encompass approximately 75% of Niue's coastline but involve only a small total land area. In addition much of the region seaward of the 175m contour on the east coast experiences relatively minor exploitation at present due to the extreme ruggedness of the terrain. Hence it is felt that the closures would not result in great inconvenience while providing formal protection from future exploitation of the protected regions.

Unfortunately the above closures would not afford protection to those females which have released their eggs and are migrating ‘inland’. Effective protection of such crabs would require hunting closures of all areas within 1 km of the coast which would include the majority of the general hunting areas of the local collectors. This would in effect stop all major crab hunting during what is traditionally a period of high coconut crab consumption. Such a situation is somewhat unreasonable and could not be enforced.

Detailed research is required to identify the presence of any major coastal female aggregation points and migration pathways. Specific closures could then be targeted at such areas (refer section 9.1.3).

5. A comprehensive public awareness campaign.

A detailed public information package encompassing both printed and electronic media is integral to the success of any conservation-based management plan. It is impractical to assume that legislation-based protection measures, such as legal-minimum hunting size and area closures, can be effective without the broad-based support of the people of Niue.

On the basis of widespread discussions conducted during this author's visits to Niue it is apparent that many Niueans are of the opinion that the coconut crab is under no threat, that hunting is as productive as ever and that the crabs are as large as they ever were. For such Niueans any crab, irrespective of sex or size, is ‘fair game’ and laws relating to minimum size and hunting seasons would be given little respect. Conversely there are also many Niueans who agree that the coconut crab is in decline and that conservation measures are required. Obviously it is the former group that a public awareness campaign must target.

Unfortunately neither the Niue Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) or the Niue Police Department has sufficient manpower to rigourously enforce any coconut crab conservation laws. As a result adherence to such regulations by the local populace will be reliant to a large extent upon self-regulation. It is envisaged that by graphically demonstrating how coconut crabs live and why they are considered to be in danger that a consensus of opinion can be generated amongst Niueans in support of coconut crab conservation measures as well as an understanding that such measures are not only necessary but in their best interests.

Under the original terms of reference for this project a poster, a pamphlet and a video movie, all dealing with various aspects of coconut crab biology and conservation, were to be produced as educational tools for the public awareness campaign.

Poster The full-colour poster measures 840 × 595mm and graphically depicts the coconut crabs' life-cycle, its preferred habitat types on Niue, its slow growth rate, its proposed minimum hunting-size (to scale) as well as conservation do's and do not's. The poster is intended as a highly visible reminder of the plight of the coconut crab and is to be displayed in schools, government offices and public areas. It is also intended that posters be given free of charge to all school children.

One thousand two hundred and fifty posters were produced and approximately 1000 have been sent to Niue. Of the remainder approximately 150 have been sent to various Island nations in the Pacific by the FAO-SPADP office in Fiji.

An A4-sized copy of the poster is included as appendix 2

Video Movie The video movie provides information of varying detail on all aspects of coconut crab biology, ecology and conservation. It outlines why and how the coconut crab project was conducted on Niue and presents a summary of the major findings-namely that the coconut crab is endangered on Niue and that conservation measures are required.

The video is being compiled by the Broadcasting Corporation of Niue (BCN) using a storyline developed by this author. The video consists of footage taken on Niue by BCN as well as unique footage of coconut crab egg-releasing methods recorded by this author at Christmas Island (Indian Ocean) during February/March 1991. It is anticipated that the video will be a major element of the public awareness campaign given that television is available to the majority of households and has a high profile. The video will be screened by BCN on several occasions as well as being shown at schools to all classes.

While the video has been compiled primarily for a Niuean audience its message and concepts are sufficiently general for it to be of relevance to all countries with coconut crabs and indeed will be offered to these countries.

A copy of the video outline as provided to BCN is included as appendix 2.

Pamphlet Following completion of the colour poster the director of DAFF, Ms Sisilia Talagi, indicated that she considered the planned pamphlet was no longer required as the pamphlet subject matter, conservation, was adequately covered in the poster. All the relevant parties agreed and the pamphlet was not produced.

6. Establishment of formal coconut crab sanctuaries.

Establishment of sanctuaries is fundamental to the preservation of coconut crab populations (Amesbury 1980). On Niue such sanctuaries need to be in either Coastal Forest or Inland High Forest with coastal access. The Huvalu Forest incorporates the only large contiguous stand of coastal High Forest remaining on Niue. Fortunately the Huvalu Forest also contains within it a long established wildlife sanctuary (ie. tapu area). Unfortunately the reserve lacks coastal access and is very small in size (2km2). If the size of the Huvalu Forest tapu area could be increased its effectiveness as a coconut crab sanctuary would be accordingly enhanced. Of more importance is the establishment of additional sanctuaries in Coastal Forest.

It is proposed that the following Coastal Forest sanctuaries be established (Figure 10):

  1. Between Vaigata and Togo (3.2 km2)
  2. Between Vaitafe and Tuo (2.4 km2)
  3. Limufuafua Point region (2.0 km2)

The Coastal Forest areas proposed for designation as coconut crab sanctuaries comprise regions of extremely rugged pinnacle-type terrain and are presently little used by the locals. The continuous stands of Coastal Forest linking the suggested sanctuaries will act as efficient vegetation corridors enabling movement of coconut crabs from sanctuary to sanctuary and so greatly enhancing the effectiveness of the areas in maintaining a reproductively viable, in terms of size and genetic heterozygosity, coconut crab population.

7. Banning use of dogs by coconut crab hunters.

During the October 1989 census it was found that 295 households (57%) owned a total of 527 dogs, many of which are used in the hunting of coconut crabs. Using dogs is not a problem in itself but it results in the dogs associating coconut crabs with natural prey. When driven by hunger these dogs will venture into the forest, often in packs, to hunt coconut crabs. Dogs not so used in coconut crab hunting do not normally hunt coconut crabs of their own accord. Anecdotal evidence indicates that in areas where dogs are extensively used in hunting crabs it is not uncommon to find in the forest remains of coconut crabs killed by dogs.

It is impossible to estimate the extent or significance of dog-based coconut crab kills but any unnecessary additional exploitative pressure on the coconut crab population needs to be avoided.

8. Instigation of a coconut crab monitoring programme.

In order to assess the effectiveness of introduced management measures in increasing the coconut crab abundance on Niue it is essential that regular surveys be conducted of the coconut crab population. A proposed follow-up survey programme is presented in section 9.1.

9. Preservation of coconut crab habitat.

Coastal Forest contains 76% of the Niue coconut crab population. It is essential that existing areas of this forest type be preserved and remain unfragmented. Every effort should be directed at dissuading families from further clearing of any Coastal Forest or coastal High Forest. Particular attention needs to be directed at preserving these forest types on the eastern side of Niue. Clearing of land for agriculture should either be restricted to those areas of the island already cleared of original forest or to inland forest areas. Inland forest habitat is of little significance to the crab and further clearing would have little serious impact on the coconut crab's long-term viability.

8.1 Coconut Crab Legislation - Present and Future

As indicated in section 3.3 there has never been government legislation pertaining to the capture, sale or export of coconut crabs. For the 9 conservation measures outlined above to be effective they must form the basis of specific legislation to conserve the coconut crab and this legislation must then be enforced. Using of preliminary results from this survey DAFF recommended to the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries that legislation be developed to protect the coconut crab. As a result 2 pieces of legislation involving protection of the coconut crab were prepared and have been submitted to the Niue Cabinet:

1. A Wildlife Amendment Bill modifying the Niue Wildlife Act 1972 to include direct reference to the capture and export of coconut crabs. Sections 4A, 7A and 8 of the act relate directly to the coconut crab and read as follows-

“4A. Restrictions on taking of coconut crabs- (1) No person shall take or be in the possession of any coconut crab -

  1. That is carrying external eggs; or
  2. From which any of the external eggs have been removed by artificial means

(2) Every person who acts in contravention of subsection (1) commits an offense and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding two hundred dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to both such fine and imprisonment.”

“7A. Prevention of export - (1) No person shall export or facilitate the export from Niue of any species of animal specified in the schedule.

(2) For the purposes of preventing the export of any species referred to in subsection (1), any constable, or any Wildlife Warden in the presence of a constable may, without warrant at any wharf airport or other place of embarkation, search any luggage or cargo.

(3) Any person who contravenes subsection (1), or who obstructs a constable or Wildlife Warden in the exercise of his powers pursuant to subsection (2) shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding two hundred dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to both such fine and imprisonment.”

8. Schedule - the principal Act is further amended by adding the following schedule -


Coconut crabs (uga)”

Following finalisation of a recommended minimum hunting-size in August 1991 an addendum was included with the proposed Wildlife Amendment Act outlining the intention to incorporate into the Act a section relating to a minimum hunting-size for coconut crabs of 36mm thoracic length.

2. The Fisheries Act 1991. This act defines ‘fish’ to include any crustacean (including uga). This Act is designed for regulation of commercial exploitation and does not apply to domestic/subsistence type exploitation except for designated “fish” species. In the case of a designated fish species the Niue Cabinet has the right to impose management/conservation measures if it is in the national interest that the fishery be -

  1. effectively conserved; or
  2. efficiently utilised

As such the Fisheries Act provides no direct measures for regulating the culling of the coconut crab but does provide for the introduction of restrictions if it is deemed necessary by the Niue Cabinet.

The Wildlife Amendment Act 1991 and the Fisheries Act 1991 were tabled during the October 1991 sitting of the Niue Cabinet for approval. Unfortunately both were rejected by Cabinet, with the Wildlife Amendment Act in particular being poorly received. The two proposed acts are currently being revised and will be re-tabled sometime during 1992.

It is suggested that because the coconut crab is to be covered by two separate legislative acts providing “different levels of protection” there is potential for confusion and contradiction. For example, in its present form the Fisheries Act 1991 does not list the coconut crab as a ‘designated fishery’ and so no hunting restrictions would apply. However the Wildlife Act 1991 does apply to coconut crabs and restrictions on its hunting and export would be applicable.

To ensure effective management of the coconut crab on Niue it is imperative that introduced legislation be unambiguous and limited to a single enforceable act. Amendment of the Wildlife Act 1972 to include specific reference to coconut crabs renders inclusion of coconut crabs in the Fisheries Act unnecessary. Revision of the Wildlife Amendment Act 1991 (with inclusion of a section relating to a legal minimum hunting size) to a form suitable to the Niue Cabinet, and removal of coconut crabs from a revised Fisheries Act is the logical option prior to re-submission of both Acts to the Niue Cabinet.

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