Papua New Guinea's Waters

Papua New Guinea Beach Photo
PNG encompasses some of the world’s last great tracts of wiliderness including tropical rainforests and coral reefs.
©Caleb McClennen
Fisher Photo
For millennia the people of Papua New Guinea have practiced fishing customs that appreciate the importance of conserving limited natural resources.
©Caleb McClennen
Underwater Plant Photo
This marine animal exhibits just some of the outstanding biodiversity found in the New Ireland Seascape off Papua New Guinea.
©Caleb McClennen

Papua New Guinea (PNG) lies within the “Coral Triangle,” an international marine biodiversity jewel that also encompasses parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The reefs in many Coral Triangle countries have been significantly degraded as a result of overfishing and other unsustainable activities. By comparison, PNG’s reefs are still relatively intact and functional, despite coastal communities’ long-term dependence upon them for food and livelihoods. However, the country’s human population is growing, creating new pressures on the fragile marine ecosystems, including an expanding export trade to supply wild-caught fish to the Asian market.

Fast Facts

  • PNG’s New Ireland Seascape includes some of the best and most diverse coral ecosystems in the Coral Triangle, and attracts scuba divers intrigued by its pygmy seahorses, reef sharks, and abundance of tropical fishes.
  • PNG’s numerous clans control approximately 90 percent of the nation’s land and all near-shore reefs through a system of traditional tenure. As a result, they hold the key to conserving their country’s cultural and natural wealth.
  • The people of PNG have a long history of temporarily closing areas to fishing to allow stocks to replenish, such as before a feast. Though these closures cannot conserve biodiversity over the long term, they indicate a longstanding awareness of human impacts on the resource.


Destructive fishing and collection practices, such as harvesting coral for use in the making of lime for betel nut, threaten the seascape resources on which those species and local communities depend. Another challenge to conserving PNG’s marine life is the scarcity of trained scientists in the country. At study sites in Papua New Guinea, WCS scientists have observed that different types of gear used by artisanal fishers have various effects on the coral reef ecosystem. Traps and spear guns are used to harvest many fish species that are key to the recovery of corals affected by climate change (i.e. those that have “bleached” as a result of warming surface waters). For example, herbivorous fish that graze on algae help keep the ecosystem in balance, enabling corals to flourish. When these fish disappear from the waters, the reefs become significantly more prone to the detrimental effects of climate change.

WCS Responds

WCS is evaluating how various traditional management measures can best be used to both conserve wildlife and meet human needs, such as propagating corals to produce lime more sustainably. Papua New Guinea’s highly decentralized marine tenure system makes most management decisions local, meaning communities are owners and managers of their own marine resources. Under the right circumstances, this arrangement enables rapid adoption of conservation measures. But because threats to the seascape are escalating, WCS supports both traditional regimes and new efforts to develop long-term, comprehensive resource management plans. The goal is to encourage both local, temporary harvest bans and permanent closure of some fishing areas.

WCS has also established and led PNG’s first intensive marine training course and participates in the multilateral Coral Triangle Initiative. The initiative draws together six countries—Indonesia, the Philippines, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Malaysia—to protect the Coral Triangle’s marine, coastal, and small island ecosystems through collaborative action.

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