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1 . Solomon Islands     Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands are the northern group of a huge arc of islands delimiting the northeast boundary of the Coral Sea. The archipelago, oriented southeast to northwest, stretches about 1700km between Bougainville in the east of Papua New Guinea and the northern-most islands (The Banks Group) of Vanuatu. The six main islands are: Choiseul; Santa Isabel; New Georgia; Guadalcanal; Malaita; and Makira. They are arranged roughly in a double chain with the two ‘strands’ enclosing a relatively sheltered sea area comprising New Georgia Sound (‘The Slot’ of World War II), between Choiseul, Santa Isabel and New Georgia, and Indispensable Strait between Malaita and Guadalcanal (Fig 1).

The land area of 28,370km² makes the Solomon Islands the third largest island nation in the South Pacific, after Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand. The 200 mile EEZ encloses 1.34 million km², twice that of neighbouring Vanuatu, slightly larger than Fiji, and a little smaller than the areas of Cook Islands, New Caledonia and the Northern Marianas Islands. The total area of internal waters within the 12-mile zone is 0.3 million km², where most of the coral reefs occur. The archipelago was formed about 25 million years ago by tectonic plate movement, earthquakes, and by considerable submergence and emergence (Maragos 1998). Thus fossil corals are found high on the slopes of Mount Austin behind Honiara. There are about 1000 islands (comprising small islands, atolls and islets) which are mostly raised volcanic islands with the reefs predominantly fringing on the steep slopes (Maragos 1998). The six largest islands, rise steeply from the sea and each has a central mountain spine with peaks up to 2450m. Large coastal plains only occur on Guadalcanal, particularly in the northeast. Solomon Islands is within the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ belt and still has active and dormant volcanoes. The two active volcanoes are the Kavachi submarine volcano south of Vangunu in eastern New Georgia, and the Tinakula volcano far to the east in the Santa Cruz Group. Dormant volcanoes, that still emit fumes, are Savo Island between Florida Islands and Guadalcanal, and in western New Georgia, Simbo volcano on Nusa Simbo Island and Paraso volcano on Vella Lavella.

The two main climate systems affecting the Solomon Islands are the southeasterly trade winds (Ara) that blow from May through to October and the northwesterly monsoon winds (Koburu) that blow from December until March. Fine, sunny, relatively calm weather normally occurs during the months of April and November. Air temperatures in the Solomon Islands do not vary considerably; mean daily temperature throughout the year averages 28°C ± 2°C, with minima to 23°C in the early morning of the Ara season. Daily maxima are normally 30°C. Rainfall ranges between 3-5 metres per year. There is generally more precipitation during the wet Koburu season than during the relatively dry Ara season.

Sea surface temperatures in the Solomons are consistently in the high 20s with a small annual variation. At Honiara, at 9.5°S and about mid-latitude for the archipelago, the mean monthly sea surface temperatures measured over 65 months from July 1994 until November 1999, ranged from 27.4 to 30.1°C. The average of the 65 monthly means was 29.08°C. Minimum and maximum daily temperatures within this period were 26.5 and 31.6°C. The coolest temperatures commonly occur between August and October and the highest temperatures between January and March. Sometimes the mean monthly sea temperature is above 29.5°C for 4 or 5 consecutive months (data from Solomon Islands Meteorological Service).

Tides in the Solomon Island are diurnal i.e. it takes almost 24 hours for the tide to rise and fall. The spring range is about 1.4m and the neap range about 0.45m. The tidal curve is asymmetric; the tide falls much faster than it rises (Womersley and Bailey 1969, Fig. 129). In the latter half of the year, the low tide tends to occur at about midday. But from about October, the time of low water shifts so that in the other half of the year the time of low tide moves to about midnight (Morton and Challis 1969; Womersley and Bailey 1969).


Melanesians first settled the Solomon Islands 4000-6500 years before present, with the Polynesians settling in the outlying islands and atolls about 2000-3000 years ago. Thus the indigenous people of the Solomon Islands are diverse and speak about 87 languages and dialects. The common language is Pidgin, and English is the official language used in government and business. The population consists of Melanesian (94.2%), Polynesians 3.7%, Micronesians 1.4% and Chinese or Caucasian 0.7% (Leary 1993). Kiribati people, who were resettled by the British Government in the 1960s, are included as Micronesians.

European ‘discovery’ of Solomon Islands, was a hit and miss affair. The Spanish, who came from Peru, hit upon Santa Isabel in 1568, and over a period of six months found the other large islands. Returning in 1595 to start a colony, they missed the main islands, so tried unsuccessfully to colonise the much smaller, and highly malarial Santa Cruz Islands. A second colonisation attempt in 1606 found only the minuscule Duff Islands and went on to attempt to colonise Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu – again unsuccessfully. This was probably because mapmakers plotted the Solomons far to the east of their correct position. The next European contact was in 1767 when a British sea captain, Philip Cataret, found Santa Cruz and Malaita, followed by other British, French and American explorers. Traders, missionaries and territorial claims in the north by Germany and in the south by Great Britain followed. Germany ceded the northern claims in 1897 to Great Britain in exchange for Britain relinquishing its claims to Western Samoa. Bougainville, naturally part of the Solomon archipelago was left in German control, and so today is part of Papua New Guinea. The British administered the islands as a Protectorate; but development was minimal. During World War II the fight for control of an airstrip on Guadalcanal near Honiara was a major turning point of the war. Thereafter the Japanese retreated as the Americans advanced; but not without exceptionally violent and bloody battles on land, sea and air.

After the war, Britain continued to administer the Protectorate until independence in 1978. Solomon Islands was one of the last British colonies to become independent. It is now a democratic state with a modified form of Westminster government and with the British Monarch as Head of State. The provisional population (1999 census) was 408,358.

Politically the nation is divided into 9 provinces: (1) Temotu (Santa Cruz Islands); (2) Makira (formerly San Christobal); (3) Guadalcanal; (4) Central (Russell and Florida Islands); (5) Malaita; (6) Isabel; (7) Western (New Georgia Group); (8) Choiseul and (9) Rennell & Bellona; in addition to the Honiara Town Council.

This is a country with a rapidly increasing population that is predominantly rural, coastal and where the annual per capita income is considerably less than $US1,000. Coupled with new opportunities for converting reef resources to cash, and increased logging, mining and plantation development, activities that inevitably increase erosion and the turbidity of coastal waters, the situation in Solomon Islands does not bode well for the health and vigour of coastal marine life.

Tenure and Ownership

Tenure and ownership are particularly important with respect to coral reefs in Solomon Islands. Most reefs are owned under the customary marine tenure system that is recognised under the Solomon Islands Constitution. The owners are an integral part of the reef system and a holistic approach must always be taken when discussing coral reefs. The success or failure of conservation efforts on coral reefs largely depends on the attitudes of the communities owning them.

Coral reefs and adjacent coastal areas such as lagoons are owned under a kinship group-based ownership. The clan or the tribe normally owns the reefs (fringing or barrier) under customary rights (Oreihaka and Ramohia 1994), but ownership details vary from area to area. Skewes (1990) described such a system as complex and dynamic and an important part of Solomon Islands culture. Documented examples are the Ngella system (Foale 1998), Lau in north Malaita (Akimichi 1991) and Marovo lagoon (Hviding 1988). The studies by Foale (1998) will be reviewed here to illustrate the nature of the ownership system.

The reefs in Nggela are regarded as an extension of the land and owned by the tribes, and boundaries of coastal properties extend seaward to divide reefs and the adjacent sea resources within these areas (Kema; Foale 1998). There are four Kema, subdivided in turn into 7 clans (Vike) who are the primary owners of reefs or sea. In cases where small islands or islets are owned, the Kema or Vike also own the adjacent reefs. Primary rights to property and Vike affiliation are inherited matrilineally. Utilisation and management of resources within the coral reefs is done through the Vike.

Reefs or seas can be transferred across Vike during a Huihui, when the ‘owners to be’ make a feast for and present money (traditional and modern) and gifts to the original owners. Food and gifts are also presented to the other elders (chiefs and village leaders) of the community who witness such a transfer. The ‘owners to be’ must not eat any food that is prepared for the original owners. A Huihui normally occurs where ownership is transferred from the patrilineal side or when land is bought from another Kema or Vike. The important role played by the tribes or clans owning the reefs in utilisation and conservation of coral reefs will be discussed later, especially pertaining to MPAs and conservation efforts.
Source: Sulu R., C. Hay, P. Ramohia and M. Lam. , 2000 , The Coral Reefs of Solomon Islands . Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) Report. (See Document)

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