Sustainable crab catching a boon for islanders
It’s sunrise on the Cham Islands. Members of the local land crab cooperative rush home with baskets full of crabs after a night hunting in the hilly forest.
The catch is reported to the cooperative management board before their shell size is measured and, if they meet the criteria, a label attached denoting they are for legal sale at the market.
Land crab (Gecarcoidea lalandii) – a purple shelled crustacean – is sealed for sale at the Cham Islands, off the coast of Hoi An.
Nguyen Duy Khanh, 38, head of the cooperative, is waiting for the hunters to return to the cooperative centre, where he will check the catch. Only crabs with a shell at least 7cm long will head to the market.
“It’s a strictly-enforced rule aimed at ensuring the sustainable protection and conservation of land crabs,” he explained. “Labels are only attached on crabs that meet the criteria for sale, while pregnant or smaller crabs are released back into the forest.”
“Each member of the cooperative is permitted to catch only 50 crabs, or 8kg, each season, which lasts from March to late July,” he said.
Khanh said the cooperative was established to ensure the community-based management and exploitation of the natural resource, helping islanders increase their earnings while protecting the natural environment.
The cooperative and its 42 members also work to ensure harmony between people and nature, and only members are permitted to catch crab in the forest.
Land crabs (Gecarcoidea lalandii) - purple shelled crustaceans - have become an eco-tour product that will support the sustainable development of the Cham Islands.
Twenty kilometres off the coast of central Hoi An ancient city, a world biosphere reserve, the islands are the only place in the country to have successfully monitored and managed wild crab catching.
Visitors will be unable to see any crabs at the local market during the reproduction season, between July and October, when all catching is banned, Khanh adds.
When in season, he explained, crab hunters head into the forest at 6pm and stay there overnight, with each kilo selling for 1.2 million VND (52 USD), which is a handy sum when added to regular incomes from fishing and tourism services like driving motorbike taxis or boats, guiding tours, and diving.
“The 25 members of the cooperative have benefited from zero interest loans of 150 million VND (6,500 USD) from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), to support the sustainable protection and conservation of land crab species,” Khanh said.
The fund encourages members to strictly follow the “no crab catching” ban in place between August and February.
According to experts from the Cham Islands Marine Protected Area (MPA), each purple-shelled crab produces as many as 27,000 offspring each year, but only 3 percent survive. Mother crabs often move from the forest to the sea for seven days to lay eggs. Baby crabs must then seek a way back to the forest, and the females among them will reproduce 16 years later.
Khanh said an adult crab, with a shell size from 7cm to 12cm, needs these 16 years to fully grow in an area of the forest with abundant food sources.
Dr Chu Manh Trinh from the Cham Islands MPA says the establishment of the cooperative has ended over-catching and illegal hunting of crabs.
“Only people with power can protect their natural surroundings,” he said. “Community-based management has generated success stories, and the Cham Islands is a great example of sustainable development at work.
“Management has also helped boost the value of the islands’ crab ‘brand’ in recent decades, which benefits conservation efforts.”
The community has established a crab protection team, he says, which monitors over-catching and illegal hunting.
A report from the Cham Islands MPA notes that about 7,000 crabs are caught each year and 75 percent of the islands’ crab population are conserved.
Trinh explained that the sustainable exploitation of the crabs guarantees livelihood for islanders into the future, with all involved having a stake in reducing over-catching and mass exploitation.
The islands are the only place in Vietnam with a “land crab bank” - a free crab-catching zone on Dai Islet, one of eight islets making up the Cham Islands.
Nguyen Van Phong, a member of staff at the Cham Islands MPA, said crab conservation is appealing to many tourists visiting the islands, along with a “Say No” to plastic bags campaign instituted in the community and among tourists since 2011.
Many islanders, he says, can earn more money from providing services such as homestays, motorbike rentals, boat trips to islets, diving, or trekking.
Tran Quy Tay from the Cham Islands People’s Committee said at least 40 percent of local people earn a living from tourism and not just fishing.
Life for the islanders was previously reliant upon fishing, Trinh said, but eco-tours and environmental protection have changed the islands’ economic structure towards sustainability.
Challenges to address
The director of the Cham Islands-Hoi An MPA Centre, Tran Thi Hong Thuy, says mass tourism has come with major challenges for the islands as an excessive number of boat trips from the mainland will threaten its rich ecosystem.
The demand for seafood among increasing numbers of tourists will also lead to over-fishing offshore.
Thuy recalled that a large area of sea grass was destroyed between 2009 and 2018, while tourist numbers have increased by a factor of 20 since 2009.
She said about a hundred restaurants, shops, seafood agents, and homestay services have appeared on the islands, which combined with the building of road infrastructure have cleared 102ha of special use forest (out of a total 1,500ha of forested area) over the last decade.
The Cham Islands-Hoi An World Biosphere Reserve, which covers more than 33,000ha, was recognised by UNESCO in 2009. It has 1,500ha of tropical forests and 6,700ha of ocean area boasting a wide range of marine flora and fauna.
The islands are the only location in Vietnam banning the use of plastic bags and promoting “3Rs” (reduce, reuse, and recycle) programmes, since 2011.
Khanh said each member of the cooperative can earn 25 million VND (over 1,000 USD) or more in total from crab hunting being strictly controlled.
The cooperative has also been farming mushrooms and other organic crops, he added, creating more income-earning opportunities for members and easing over-exploitation of forests and oceans./.VNS
A Ly Son Island resident in the central province of Quang Ngai has ignored cynicism and negative comments to continue on his mission to preserve his homeland’s maritime resource.