Fishing in the Kingdom of Tonga has historically been open access, leading to serious concerns about the current status of the country’s reef fish fishery.

In 2002, as a result of increasing concerns over the depletion of local fish stocks, the Tongan Ministry of Fisheries implemented the Special Management Area (SMA) program. Special Management Areas are locally managed marine protected areas with two components: an exclusive access zone in which only members of the SMA community can fish, and a permanent no-take Fish Habitat Reserve, the size and location of which are determined by the community. It is the responsibility of each community to manage and enforce their entire SMA.

Recently the SMA program has expanded rapidly, with over 30 new SMAs established in the past three years. However, capacity and resources for monitoring are limited. Currently it is unclear whether the existing SMAs are having their desired effect of promoting recovery of fish populations, and very little baseline data has been collected for those SMAs currently being implemented. In addition there is limited information on the status of Tonga’s coral reef ecosystems in general.

Given these gaps, our research is attempting to map the health of Tonga’s coral reefs with the aim of providing feedback and advice to the Tongan Government and the communities responsible for managing the SMAs. Our results will be used to determine the conservation impact of all existing SMAs in Tonga, as well as designing an ongoing impact evaluation program that can be used to monitor new SMAs.

We have recently returned from six months in the field, during which we surveyed 300 sites across Tonga. Data have been collected across all three island groups, from 8 existing SMAs and 30 new SMAs implemented within the past three years. This work was done by a small team of researchers from an old sailing boat. The small size of Tonga (~300 km north to south) makes it a perfect study area for a small team to be able to conduct research on a national scale. In 2018 we published the first article from our research in Tonga: Predicting impact to determine the efficacy of community based marine reserve design (

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