How space tech is aiding mangrove conservation in the Commonwealth

Powerful satellites orbiting hundreds of miles above Earth are helping some Commonwealth countries save and restore vital mangrove ecosystems while combatting climate change.

Officials from Trinidad and Tobago and Sri Lanka recently shared how they are using sophisticated earth-imaging technology to gather valuable data on the coverage, health and changes in the features of mangroves along their coastlines and rivers.

The information is critical to stemming the rapid disappearance of mangroves worldwide, with 30 to 50 per cent of these marine ecosystems lost mainly to deforestation over the last 50 years.

The data is also key to understanding mangroves’ capacity to capture and store away carbon from the atmosphere – the main driver of climate change.

Country experiences

Countries shared their experiences during an online event organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat to mark International Mangrove Day on 26 July, which also included insights from Planet, a world leader in satellite imagery technology.

Director General of Ocean Affairs, Environment and Climate Change at the Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka, Hasanthi Dissanayake, highlighted:

“Sri Lanka became a global leader in mangrove restoration and conservation after the devastating impacts of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. We learnt from the experience and have spearheaded the conservation in our country and across the Commonwealth.”

The country has since advanced in strides, championing the Commonwealth Blue Charter Action Group on Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods since 2018, establishing a cross-sectoral Mangrove Taskforce and adopting a national policy on the conservation and sustainable use of mangroves in 2020.

The Director of the Biodiversity Secretariat at the Ministry of Environment, Pathma Abeykoon, also shared how satellite technology is used to track changes to mangrove ecosystems over time, in addition to modelling disasters and mapping vulnerable areas for disaster preparation, management and recovery.

Mitigating climate change

In Trinidad and Tobago, scientists at the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) combined several different layers of data in order to learn how to manage mangroves sustainably, and study its role as a carbon ‘sink’.

“Mangrove forests actually store something like four times more carbon than terrestrial forests,” explained Nikia Gooding, a geospatial research fellow at the country’s Institute of Marine Affairs.

“If we’re able to understand how much carbon is stored and sequestered in these forests, then we can start an argument as to why they should be conserved and protected, because it’s one of the ways for us to mitigate against climate change.”

The IMA has been using a combination of aerial and satellite imagery, the most recent Google Earth imagery, LandSat data produced by American Space Agency (NASA) and other sources to monitor mangrove ecosystems in Trinidad and Tobago over a 25-year period from 1994 to 2019. The findings were published earlier this year.

Data sets from 3-D laser scans and physical measurements of mangroves, soil analysis and carbon testing, are also being used to accurately quantify the carbon stored in mangrove forests, both above and below the ground.

Ms Gooding highlighted the benefits of free online and virtual training modules offered through Commonwealth Blue Charter which trains mangrove technicians and managers on the use of GIS tools to map mangroves and contribute to policy development.

Democratising data

Presenting the vast applications of satellite data, Planet’s Strategic Accounts manager for the EMEA region, Mark Richardson, said: “At Planet, we collect massive amounts of data, every single day. We want to democratise access to our imagery and fundamentally that means ensuring those people who need it the most are able to access those data.”

A frontrunner in the field, Planet uses 180 small satellites to scan and produce images of the Earth every day at a 3-metre resolution, with 21 larger satellites scanning at 50 centimetre resolution. At last, 20 terra bytes of data are downloaded from the satellites every single day.

This data has been used by a wide range of stakeholders, including mangrove researchers focusing on ‘blue carbon’, habitat mapping and protection, and storm impacts.

Adviser and Blue Charter lead at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Jeff Ardron, said: “One of the aims of the Commonwealth Blue Charter is to bring countries together, along with other action-oriented partners, to share experiences and discuss solutions to common challenges.

“These include new approaches that take advantage of emerging and low-cost technologies to build resilience of local communities.”

The webinar was part of an ongoing series focused innovative solutions and best practices being implemented by the 10 country-led Action Groups of the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

About Commonwealth Blue Charter Training opportunities

The Commonwealth Blue Charter during 2020, pivoted from in-country training events to the virtual and self-paced programmes. Since mid-2020 the Commonwealth Blue Charter has trained over 300 government officials and scientists across eight topics, including Mangrove Mapping for Managers and Technicians. These courses are free and aim to help Action Group members gain new skills or enhance existing ones.

Over the coming months further modules will become available, relating to coral reef mapping, blue carbon, blue economy and sustainable coastal fisheries.

To keep up-to-date with online training opportunities and events subscribe to the Commonwealth Blue Charter newsletter.

Case study: Community-Based Fisheries Management in Kiribati (on-going)

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“Fishermen catches have once declined nearshore before the arrival of CBFM in 2014. The creation of management plans brought in positive impacts to our marine resources and fishermen are getting more catches now than before.”

– Biita Ioane, Kuma fisherman from Butaritari


The coastal fisheries of Kiribati are typically artisanal and local. Rapid population growth has increased pressure on these resources, as evidenced by declines in abundance of target species such as goatfish, clams and bonefish.

In 2013, the Government of Kiribati made Community Based Fisheries Management (CBFM) a short-term priority strategic action in its National Fisheries Policy. This was followed, in 2014, by a three-year pilot project on CBFM focusing on two islands, North Tarawa and Butaritari, as a partnership between the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resource Development of Kiribati (MFMRD), the University of Wollongong (Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security– ANCORS) and the Pacific Community (SPC), with funding from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). There were four phases to the work: scoping threats and opportunities, identifying stakeholders and how they wished to manage their fishery, developing management plans, and monitoring and evaluation.

Five communities took part in the pilot project; over the three years, all of them produced CBFM plans. These are supported by the Island Council and elders association promoting measures such as banning the use of destructive fishing gears and practices. Legal backing is planned under the recently agreed Fisheries (Conservation and Management of Coastal Marine Resources) Regulations 2019.

Data-gathering through community meetings has improved knowledge across different stakeholder groups of fisheries resources and their sustainable exploitation. This work has been supported with training for community members and MFMRD staff by the project team. Community leaders have also been given a valuable sense of empowerment as part of the management cycle.

As knowledge and understanding of the CBFM approach and its benefits has spread, well over 40 communities across 11 islands of Kiribati are currently working in this way. At the national level, the project has created momentum within MFMRD to use and incorporate CBFM principles.

Community meeting to discuss CBFM in Butaritari in 2014

The issue

Fishing contributes significantly to the economy, food security and employment in Kiribati and, in the long term, relies on the sustainability of fish stocks. The coastal fisheries of the country are typically artisanal, targeting finfish, bivalves, cephalopods and gastropods, and are mostly carried out at a household level for subsistence consumption. There is some trade through the main markets in urban areas and via individual stalls along the roadside.

Rapid population growth (increased requirements for food) and development of a cash economy (the need to sell catches to fund other purchases) was placing increasing pressure on local resources through overharvesting and increases in fishing capacity.

When combined with some destructive fishing methods, pollution and habitat damage, target species important for the coastal fisheries, such as goatfish, clams, bonefish, red snapper and octopus, were in decline.

The response

In 2013, the Government of Kiribati made Community Based Fisheries Management (CBFM) a short-term priority strategic action in its National Fisheries Policy. In 2014, as part of a larger project that operated across three countries (Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu), work started on piloting CBFM in five communities on the islands of North Tarawa and Butaritari. These were places where community members shared many of the same resource use issues and concerns. The three-year pilot project was carried out to develop community-based fisheries management plans.

After the Government made the CBFM project, a new Fisheries Regulation for – Fisheries (Conservation and Management of Marine Resources) Regulation 2019 was developed and endorsed in 2019. CBFM was recognised under this new regulation given the provision subject to Part II. The regulation empowers the management plan under the CBFM given the authorised officers are able to enforce the management measures under the management plan. An important objective was capacity-building, and therefore working with communities to understand how they could be involved in ensuring the sustainable management of their fisheries.

There were four phases to the work: scoping threats and opportunities, identifying stakeholders and how they wished to manage their fishery, developing management plans, and finally monitoring and evaluation. Five pilot communities were initially suggested by Island Councils and interest in participating in the project was confirmed by the local communities in these areas. Sixteen community engagement activities were held in Tarawa and Butaritari, over the 3-year period with different objectives at different stages.

Initially the objectives were to introduce the project and enable community members to talk about their potential involvement in it, to define priorities for a model of CBFM in Kiribati and to collect relevant data. CBFM plans were drafted in the second year and meetings were held on enforcement and implementation in the final year. The project was promoted to the wider Kiribati community during Fisheries Awareness Weeks, when activities and achievements were showcased.

Training sessions on data collection were organised for community members and MFMRD staff by the project team at various stages. There was also training for Fisheries Extension Officers in CBFM engagement approaches throughout the project and MFMRD is currently working on a manual specifically for Kiribati on CBFM.


Partnerships and support

The CBFM project started in May 2014, as a threeyear partnership between the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resource Development of Kiribati (MFMRD), the University of Wollongong (Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security – ANCORS) and the Pacific Community (SPC), the project was later renewed for another four years. The funding for this work has been supported by the Australian Government through ACIAR projects FIS/2012/074 and FIS/2016/300. In the first phase, staff from MFMRD and ANCORS identified and evaluated the social, economic, environmental, and governance context, while they focused on establishing a strong enabling environment, scaling CBFM to more communities and monitoring, evaluating and learning during the second phase.

The development of the pilot CBFM plans was a collaborative process, with participation and actions undertaken at a local level as well as with the involvement of Island Councils and national agencies – principally MFMRD but also the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA).

Results, accomplishments and outcomes

All five pilot communities established CBFM committees as the voice of the programme in their villages. Butaritari has also established an island-wide CBFM committee. All five have developed community based fisheries management plans. Common elements include banning destructive fishing gear and practices, including prohibiting; the use of small-size nets and excessively long gillnets, encircling corals with gillnets, destroying corals to reach fish or octopus, fishing on spawning aggregations and the catching of juvenile fish. All five plans also recommended establishing a marine reserve, with Bikati the first community to establish a communityled marine protected area.

With the involvement of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, MFMRD and the Attorney General’s Office there has been clarification and guidance on how Island Councils can introduce local bylaws for coastal fisheries management (out to 3 nautical miles) under the Local Government Act 1984. By 2017, four communities had taken steps towards drafting a bylaw to formalise their CBFM plans. Legal backing for CBFM plans is now intended, using provisions of the recently agreed Fisheries (Conservation and Management of Coastal Marine Resources) Regulations 2019. This sets out a consultation process and lists the key elements required by such plans, such as specifying the conservation and management measures to achieve stated objectives, a programme for implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and arrangements for surveillance and enforcement.

Data-gathering through community meetings has improved knowledge across different stakeholder groups on fisheries resources and their sustainable exploitation. This was done using matrices to capture information on aspects such as fish catches, who fishes, seasonality of catches and perceived status and conditions of the stocks. The process was also very successful at involving and motivating community members, especially in the case of ‘participatory mapping’, where community members were encouraged to draw maps, identify fishing
grounds, spawning aggregation sites and other elements of the marine ecosystem.

As knowledge and understanding of the CBFM approach and its benefits has spread, other communities and islands of Kiribati expressed an interest in developing similar management plans for their local areas. In 2016, through a follow-on project, CBFM approaches were extended to Maiana, Abemama and Nonouti Islands and in 2017 the Island Councils of Abaiang and Marakei requested formal assistance from MFMRD to help develop community fisheries management plans. A second phase of CBFM has added islands such as Aranuka, Marakei and North Tabiteuea.

A combination of existing CBFM resources, training on facilitation skills and applied fieldwork with trained CBFM officers was found to be a very effective method to reach out to more officers within MFMRD and, through them, to disseminate the principles of the project to a growing number of staff. At the national level, the project has created momentum within the National Coastal Fisheries Division of MFMRD, to incorporate CBFM principles such as facilitation rather than presentations into their work.


A challenge identified by community members was that, unless formal legal recognition is created to honour CBFM efforts, any village-level management plan will be unsuccessful owing to a lack of effective compliance and
enforcement mechanisms.

A related issue was that considerable confusion existed across government, Island Councils and community stakeholders about the process involved in creating and applying fisheries bylaws. These were important tools for CBFM as they enabled local communities to push for statutory backing to underpin their CBFM plans; however, they have since been superseded by the new Fisheries Regulations 2019, which make provisions for entire CBFM plans to be incorporated into law.

Another challenge lies in sustaining lines of outreach, communication and action beyond one or two key individuals. There is a need to make sure that community and government officers remain aware of their options as leadership and staff changes. The roles of community leaders in the management cycle also need to be clarified, perhaps through a new and more formal process of engagement between MFMRD, MIA and Island Councils.

Key lessons learnt

Continuous positive stakeholder engagement and participatory problem-solving are required, given that sharing management responsibility with communities is on-going and complex because so many parties, with a wide variety of views, need to be engaged. The acceptance and long-term enforcement of communitydriven resource management decisions require strengthened connections and support within and between villages, as well as across levels of government and regulation.

To achieve the best results, there was a need for bylaws to underpin CBFM plans, so as to legitimise local authority over fisheries management and enable effective enforcement. In the longer term, if CBFM were recognised in national regulations, this would not only enshrine this approach in the law but also give community leaders a valuable sense of empowerment as part of the management cycle. This has since happened with the new Fisheries Regulations 2019.

The implementation process has highlighted the importance of establishing clear protocols for community engagement with relevant key institutions (national, subnational and village) to ensure transparency. Relevant institutions should know about project objectives, progress and timing of visits to communities. Clear communication between different institutions is also key to avoid misunderstandings or misconceptions about CBFM.

The inclusion of institutions other than those directly in charge of fisheries management, such as MIA and the Environment and Conservation Division of the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Agricultural Development, has served to strengthen institutional links and broaden government support for the CBFM process in the long term.

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Case study: Developing a National Marine Litter Action Plan, Belize (on-going)

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“The development of the Marine Litter Action Plan with the assistance from CLiP shows Belize’s continued commitment in the protection of our marine environment and work to reduce
marine litter.”

Maxine Monsanto, Environmental Officer, DOE, Belize (October 2019)

“It’s my hope our work under CLiP with Belize will help the country to continue to significantly reduce marine litter and support its world leading efforts to protect its globally precious environment.”

Peter Kohler, Country Lead for Belize, Cefas, on behalf of CLiP (October 2019)


Belize adopted its national Marine Litter Action Plan in 2019 following extensive stakeholder engagement and a public awareness campaign, which is still underway. The Belizean Department of the Environment developed this in collaboration with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, through the Commonwealth Litter Programme (CLiP). CLiP worked with Belize to support science and evidence development and awareness-raising on the issue of marine litter, and included several components, all of which supported the development of the action plan, which will guide Belize’s work towards addressing the issue of marine plastic pollution over the coming years.

The issue

Plastics enter the marine environment from a variety of land- and sea-based sources, including (but not limited to) accidental or deliberate littering, poor wastewater and solid waste management, and deliberate illegal dumping.

Marine plastics disproportionately affect smaller coastal nations like Belize, where the economy is heavily reliant on tourism and there is an active fishing sector, and where often waste management infrastructure is limited.

In Belize, the Department of the Environment (DOE) began looking into the country’s use of single-use plastic items in 2017, prompted by the prevalence of discarded Styrofoam food containers found on the streets. The DOE convened an ad hoc working group to understand the issue further and undertook a snapshot analysis of the rate of import, manufacturing and disposal of single-use items in Belize. The results indicated that Belize imported over 200 million single-use plastic bags and 52 million Styrofoam and plastic food containers annually, and locally produced and manufactured an estimated 35 million single-use plastic bags and 5 million pieces of Styrofoam. As a result, the ad hoc group was formalised, and began working on a plan to reduce the amount of waste coming from this type of plastic in Belize.

The response

Although Belize had information on the volumes of single use items being manufactured and imported, it did not have data on the quantities being found in the environment (either terrestrial or marine). Therefore, when the Belize Commonwealth Litter Programme (CLiP) project was proposed, it was at an ideal time for the country to build on the work already started, and to begin the establishment of a national marine litter monitoring programme. CLiP included several components to support Belize in its efforts to tackle the issue of marine litter. These included:

  • Review of existing best practices for Marine Litter Action in Belize and how these could be scaled for the national action plan;
  • An initial baseline study of quantities and types of litter and microplastics in the marine environment, which was used (alongside importation, production and manufacturing data) to engage with stakeholders;
  • Additional studies on waste generation and management, port reception facility capabilities and desktop studies assessing single-use plastic alternatives;
  • Capacity-building activities, supporting the set-up of a microplastics testing lab and providing microplastics and macro plastics testing and monitoring training to government scientists and University of Belize staff and students; and
  • Education and outreach activities, including an awareness-raising campaign aimed at the general public, an art competition and an innovation competition, as well as a number of workshops and beach clean-up events held with local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), businesses, government agencies, academia, representatives of the tourism sector, fishing cooperatives, private sector, church groups and rural communities. At these events, the findings of the initial studies were presented, and the environmental impacts of marine litter were discussed, alongside current best practices and ideas for reducing quantities of marine plastic pollution.
Belize Scouts Association and Cefas on outreach. Source: Crown Copyright 2019
Belize Scouts Association and Cefas on outreach. Source: Crown Copyright 2019

Partnerships and support

The Government of Belize, specifically the DOE, worked closely with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) through CLiP, which is funded by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The Belize Marine Litter Action Plan was developed in approximately four months, a period that included all stakeholder engagement activities. However, it should be noted that Belize already had in place an established working group and stakeholder group working on how the country could tackle the issue of single-use plastics in the environment. The established working group included six different government departments, including representatives from the DOE, the Solid Waste Management Authority, the Ministry of Trade, the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation, the Directorate General for Foreign Trade, Beltraide and Belize Customs and Excise. Sub-committees involving academia, NGOs, private sector businesses and civil society were in place to help address and reduce pollution from single-use plastics. In addition, development of the Marine Litter Action Plan also involved consultation of stakeholders across multiple sectors including government, businesses, schools, and fishing communities.

Results, accomplishments and outcomes

The collaboration between Cefas and the Belizean government under CLiP has produced many clear and connected results. The main achievement is the adoption of the Belize Marine Litter Action Plan, which will guide Belize’s efforts to reduce marine plastic pollution over the coming years. The action plan was developed through extensive stakeholder engagement and supported by a series of policy papers. Stakeholder workshops identified gaps and actions related to policy, stakeholder coordination, waste management and auditing, outreach and scientific knowledge. A total of 25 marine litter actions were identified in consultation with the government and other key stakeholders. These actions provide a framework for all sectors to coordinate and tackle marine litter in Belize over the coming years. The Belizean Cabinet formally adopted the Marine Litter Action Plan on 27 August 2019. Belize aspires to take a leading role in supporting other Caribbean nations in tackling marine litter.

In addition to adopting the Marine Litter Action Plan, Belize has prohibited and restricted certain single-use plastics items (including plastic shopping bags, drinking straws, Styrofoam, plastic food utensils, clamshells, flat plates and cups). The adoption of this ban was supported by the evidence and stakeholder engagement activities undertaken within the CLiP project.
See the action plan.

Although progress on implementing the action plan has stalled temporarily owing to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the public awareness campaign has continued. Once the situation begins to normalise, Belize will focus on implementing some of the key actions in the plan, including (but not limited to) the development and implementation of a national plan to address waste from vessels at national level and incorporate pollution from ships under marine pollution prevention legislation.


The main challenges facing Belize when developing the Marine Litter Action Plan were:

  •  Lack of technical expertise (both governmental and in the private sector), for example knowledge on which alternatives to single-use plastics would be most appropriate for use in Belize;
  • Lack of equipment, for example to undertake the microplastic analysis; and
  • Lack of funding, for example for awareness-raising campaigns and stakeholder events.

In terms of the CLiP project, the challenges related mainly the time constraints, with just four months to work together to collect an initial baseline, analyse the results, present them to stakeholders and develop targeted actions. The initial work already undertaken by the Belizean government in advance of the CLiP project contributed greatly in terms of speeding up this process. The already present government commitment and established working group provided a good foundation for the Cefas project team to build on. The stakeholder network was already being established and this aided with activities within the short timeframe available.

Marine Litter Monitoring Training on Belizean beach. Source: Crown Copyright 2019
Marine Litter Monitoring Training on Belizean beach. Source: Crown Copyright 2019

Key lessons learnt

The key lesson learnt during the development of the national action plan was that, as a first step, any country wishing to develop such a plan should undertake stakeholder analysis to understand the different players involved. Through early engagement with stakeholders, any existing work already underway can be identified and built on. Second, a scientific evidence base should be compiled to present to the relevant stakeholders the need to develop the plan. Finally, a clear outline of the different steps to follow to develop the action plan and a timeline for completion should be shared with all stakeholders. These three steps are essential if the action plan is to have buy-in from the different stakeholders and members of the public. Another important lesson is to ensure that national work complements any regional plans already in place.

The UK-funded CLiP project in Belize has highlighted the necessity of having good collaboration with the country in question, but more specifically the importance of mapping stakeholders across sectors and working with them to identify how to add-value to ongoing work. This will enable smoother running of workshops, events and general logistical challenges but also help avoid any potential cultural misunderstandings.


UK-Defra funds the Commonwealth Marine Litter Programme (CLiP), which is led by the UK through the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas). The programme supports a number of countries across the Commonwealth to tackle plastics entering the oceans. CLiP contributes to delivering the objectives under the UK and Vanuatu-led Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance (CCOA), which calls on other countries to pledge action on plastics. CCOA also promotes actions in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 (life below water) to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, as well as contributing to the UK Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.

This work has been graciously supported by the Department of the Environment, Belize and the British High Commission in Belize.

Lead contacts

DOE, Belize: [email protected]
Peter Kohler, CLiP Country Lead, Cefas: [email protected]

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