Champions of the sea: how PNG women are helping to save coral reefs


Women around the world are making a mark in fields previously seen to be male-dominated, the field of science included. The Sea Women of Melanesia (SWOM) is an exceptional example of Papua New Guinean women making an impact in marine conservation.

SWOM gives women in the South Pacific skills to monitor the health of coral reefs, and create and restore marine protected areas. The organisation, headquartered in Port Moresby, is unique in that it not only uses science but combines gender equity and sustainability in its work with traditional landowners to develop marine reserves to enhance fisheries and biodiversity.

Since its inception in 2016, SWOM’s marine conservation work has been in an area known as the Coral Triangle. The triangle covers about 5.7 million square kilometres between the Great Barrier Reef, Melanesia and South-East Asia.

Home to countless marine species, it is one of the world’s premier destinations for underwater tourism and home to a major fisheries industry. According to SWOM, it is also threatened by the surging human population, waste levels and climate change.

The good news, says SWOM, is that coral reefs are resilient and can recover if the marine environment is safeguarded.

‘Shore clean-ups, reef surveys and the creation of marine reserves have taken place around the country.’

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SWOM aims to combat marine degradation by empowering indigenous women with the education, skills and resources needed to take an active role in raising awareness about the problem, as well as creating and monitoring marine protected areas on their local coral reefs.

The sea women are, at the same time, changing narratives about a woman’s role in her community and her opportunities for leadership. The women are combining indigenous knowledge with science to engage with their communities.

In PNG, the sea women are active in several places, including Kimbe, Madang and Gona Bara, where SWOM has been able to work with landowners to help manage manta ray feeding grounds. Shore clean-ups, reef surveys and the creation of marine reserves have also taken place around the country.

SWOM has gained international recognition for its work, most recently being awarded the 2021 Champions of the Earth Award, the UN’s highest environmental award.

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The article ‘Champions of the sea’ was first published in the June-August editions of PNG Now, Papua New Guinea’s leading lifestyle magazine.

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