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Vanuatu Fishery sector overview (from NFSO)
NFSO National Fishery Sector Overview - provide a comprehensive overview of the fisheries and aquaculture sector for each country featured, including economic and demographic information, structure of the industry, development prospects, sector management and status and trends....more


Land area

12 190 km²

Ocean area:

680 000 km

Length of coastline:

1 920 km

Length of 200-m isobath:

2 593 km

Population (1999)


Gross Domestic Product (1999)

US$ 229.3 million

Fishing contribution to GDP (1999):

US$5.1 million

GDP per caput (1999):

US$ 1 187


Commodity balance (2000):




Total supply

Per caputsupply

Tonnes liveweight equivalent


Fish for direct human consumption






Fish for animal feed and other purposes



Estimated employment (1999):

Primary sector:


Secondary sector:


Subsistence fisheries:


Gross value of Fisheries Output (2000)

US$ 4 554 424

Trade (2000)

Value of imports:

US$ 1 185 000

Value of exports:

US$ 1 086 700



Vanuatu is a Y-shaped archipelago of about 80 islands, 67 of which are inhabited, and twelve of which are considered major. The islands plus associated reefs lie between latitudes 13-21°S and longitudes 166-172°E in the western Pacific Ocean. The archipelago measures approximately 850 km in length.  

Compared to other Pacific Island countries, inshore marine areas are not extensive in Vanuatu. Inner reef areas are limited to narrow fringing reefs and the area covered by mangroves is quite small.

In addition to the national government, which has overall responsibility for fisheries development and management, Vanuatu’s six provinces are administered by local governments which have considerable autonomy in fisheries matters.

Vanuatu shares maritime borders with New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and Fiji. The undisputed portion on Vanuatu’s exclusive economic zone covers 680,000 sq km. The Mathew and Hunter area, disputed with New Caledonia, is about 190,00 sq km.

Marine fisheries 

Vanuatu’s fisheries resources are exploited at the subsistence, artisanal and industrial levels.

Subsistence activities include coastal line and net fishing targeting demersal and small pelagic reef and lagoon fish, as well as reef gleaning and collection of shellfish and other invertebrates. Most of the catch is for home consumption or family distribution, but where markets or handling and distribution facilities exist some part may be sold. The subsistence fishery is becoming increasingly cash-oriented around urban areas, with varying portions of the catch being sold.

Trochus and beche-de-mer are also collected in a low-technology, labour-intensive manner characteristic of subsistence fishing. However these species are sold and form a valuable portion Vanuatu’s of marine export products. About 100 tonnes of trochus are harvested annually, most of which is processed into button blanks in the nation’s capital, Port Vila.  

Artisanal fishing with bottom hand lines primarily targets deep-water snappers and groupers, while hand-lining and gill-netting target shallow reef fish species. Annual production of deep-bottom, reef and lagoon fish was about 110 to 140 tonnes in the 1990s. Exports of trochus (raw and processed) in the 1990s ranged from 25.4 t in 1994 to 84.3 t in 1996.

The deep-bottom fishery was established as a result of government initiatives following a series of fishing surveys of deep reef slope resources in the 1970s which indicated the presence of commercially significant stocks of deep-water snappers and groupers. In 1982 the Village Fisheries Development Project (VFDP) was established to encourage rural fishers to enter this fishery. Under the project rural fishing groups were provided with subsidised fishing craft, equipment and fuel, soft loans, training, and technical and marketing assistance. Typical craft used in the fishery were small (5-8 m) wooden skiffs powered by 15-25 hp outboard motors. Collection and distribution systems were established to transport catches to Port Vila, the capital, and other urban centres for sale. The main method of transportation was by air, since inter-island shipping in Vanuatu is inadequate for the purpose of fish marketing.

During the 1980s and early 1990s the fishery produced an average of about 50 t/ year, with a peak of 82.5 t in 1985. The fishery became a significant source of rural income in certain islands, but this was only achieved at a significant cost to government, which used technical assistance funds to subsidise many aspects of the fishery for over 15 years. Eventually donor support expired and most of the rural fishing centres were closed down. The fishery has continued to operate in the islands of Efate, Espiritu Santo and Malekula where fish transportation and other operational costs permit the fishery to be commercially viable. In the mid-1990s the total production from the fishery in these areas was about 50 t. According to the Fisheries Department, about 20 t of deep-bottom fish was landed in 1999, of which about one tonne was exported.

Other approaches have been used to attempt to improve the economics of small-scale fishing operations in Vanuatu. Principal among these has been the deployment of fish aggregation devices (FADs) in coastal waters close to both rural and urban areas to increase the catchability of tunas and allied species. FADs were originally deployed to improve the availability of bait for bottom-fishing operations as well as to generate increased catches. However they have only proved to be a viable fisheries development tool in areas close to urban centres, since the economic constraints of high fish transport costs apply even more to FAD-caught fish, which tend to be low-value, than to bottom fish. Thus the only locations where FAD deployment can be considered cost-effective are around the towns of Port Vila and Luganville. In these areas small troll fisheries for FAD-associated fish are active. It was the intention of the Fisheries Department to commence a 3-year FAD project in 1999 using UNDP funds, but the donor did not approve the project.

In Port Vila, the FADs are heavily used by sport-fishing operators targeting billfish, tunas and other large coastal pelagic species. Eight sport-fishing charter vessels ranging in size from 6-12 m operate from Port Vila. The sport-fishing industry relies on tourism for its customer base.

A small fishery and export operation for aquarium species is based on Efate, and involves four companies. Ornamental fish and ‘live rock’ (coral fragments coated with micro-organisms, used to condition marine aquaria) are collected around Efate and air-freighted to overseas markets. According to the Fisheries Department, the value of aquarium fish exported in 1999 and 2000 was about US$38,000 and US$15,000, respectively.

A fledgling domestic tuna longline fishery operated sporadically in the 1990s. The fishery involved small (10-15 m) vessels which were either locally-owned or operate under charter arrangement with local or joint-venture companies. One vessel operated in 1995, landing an estimated 24 t of catch, and two more vessels became operative in 1996. In 1999 no locally-based longliners were operating.

Industrial tuna fishing by Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean fleets has taken place in Vanuatu’s waters since the mid-1950s, mostly targeting albacore tuna. A Japanese company, Mitsui, established the South Pacific Fishing Company (SPFC) at a base at Palekula on Espiritu Santo in 1957. By 1983 20 Taiwanese longliners were based at Palekula targeting albacore in the Tasman Sea between April and August and fishing in Vanuatu waters from September to March. However in 1977 these vessels changed their bases of operation to Fiji and American Samoa as a result of fishery developments in those areas.

Between 1974 and 1979 Japanese pole-and-line vessels also fished in Vanuatu and landed catches at the SPFC base. Fishing was concentrated in the area to the north and west of Espiritu Santo and catches in the order of 300 - 1,600 t/year are recorded, with an average of 5 to 8 t per vessel-day.

In 1989 Taiwanese vessel operators reached agreement with the Government of Vanuatu to recommence fishing in Vanuatu waters in return for a fixed annual fishing access fee of US$5,000/vessel. According to the Fisheries Department, in 1999 there were 65 vessels licensed under bilateral arrangements to fish in Vanuatu waters. For this, the Vanuatu government received US$70,000 in fees.

Under the terms of the US multilateral tuna treaty, which provides for access by US purse seine vessels to the EEZs of those island states party to the agreement, US purse seine vessels may fish in Vanuatu’s EEZ. In reality, however, purse-seining conditions in Vanuatu’s EEZ are generally poor and fishing effort by this fleet has been slight, with no catches being reported in recent years. Despite the lack of catch, Vanuatu still receives fee payments, which in 1999 amounted to about US$148,000.

It is estimated that in 1999 the combined longline and purse seine tuna catch in Vanuatu waters was about 118 tonnes.

Vanuatu’s Maritime Act establishes Vanuatu as an open registry nation for ships. The Vanuatu International Shipping Registry as of September 2001 had 524 vessels of which 99 (18.9%) were fishing vessels. Very few of these vessels have ever fished in Vanuatu. A number of Taiwanese and US seiners are registered in Vanuatu, fish in the Pacific Islands region, but are based elsewhere. The 1999 tuna catches in the Pacific Islands region by these Vanuatu-flagged seiners was 26,000 tonnes, of which almost 60% was caught in the waters of Kiribati.

The employment of Vanuatu crew on foreign fishing vessels was quite important a decade ago but has declined recently. In 1990 over 400 Vanuatu men worked on Taiwanese and Korean vessels, but by the late 1990s only about 120 were so employed. Competition with crews of other nationalities (mainly Asian) is thought to be a major factor in this decline.

Inland fisheries 

Inland fisheries in Vanuatu are limited and essentially carried out for subsistence purposes. They involve the occasional capture of small quantities of freshwater prawns and eels in Vanuatu’s few rivers and streams. They are of little commercial significance.


There is little commercial or private-sector aquaculture in Vanuatu. The Fisheries Department operates a small hatchery for trochus shell (Trochus niloticus), producing juveniles which are used in experiments to study the impact and potential of reef re-seeding as a means of enhancement the wild trochus fishery. Similar experimental work on green snail (Turbo marmoratus) is also carried out.

Past aquaculture efforts in Vanuatu have included attempts at raising the oysterCrassostrea gigasandC.echinata, rabbitfish, macrobrachium shrimp, and tilapia.

In mid-1999 the Fisheries Department carried out some spawning trials of three specieis of giant clams. In the same year the Department brought seaweed (Kappaphycus alvarezi) from Fiji for some experimental culture.

According to Fisheries Department records, 275 pieces of “cultured coral” valued at US$1,165 was exported from Vanuatu in 2000.

Utilization of the catch

The majority of Vanuatu’s catch is taken by the subsistence fishery, and is landed and locally consumed throughout the archipelago. In those areas served by domestic air freight services, by one of the two private fish collection vessels currently operating out of Port Vila, or within road access of Port Vila or Luganville, a proportion of the subsistence catch may be sold.

Most commercially-sold fish ultimately finds its way to fish trading and retail outlets in Port Vila. Consumers of the product are private households and the numerous hotels and restaurants catering to Vanuatu’s busy tourist trade. The preference is for fresh or frozen product and apart from filleting and packing there is little locally-based value-added processing. Some exports of deep bottom snappers and tuna are made to Hawaii, Sydney and New Zealand, but local demand and prices for deep bottom snapper are high and local marketing is almost as profitable as the export trade.

The trochus shells are processed into button blanks at two small factories in Port Vila. The larger factory produced 22 t of button blanks in 1999 with an export value of about US$500,000. The blanks are exported to button factories in Asia and Europe.

The locally-based offshore fishing vessels which occasionally are based in Vanuatu export fish to Australia and Japan as well as sell product to local restaurants and hotels. Catches by foreign-based vessels are rarely landed in Vanuatu. The fish, almost entirely taken by longline gear, is mostly delivered to canneries in Levuka, Fiji and Pago Pago, American Samoa.


There have been several attempts to calculate fish consumption in Vanuatu in recent years. These estimates have ranged from 15.9 to 25.7 kg per person per year. This is lower than in many other Pacific Island countries, mainly because of Vanuatu’s relatively large land area and the consequent greater availability of agricultural food products, but nevertheless higher than the world average of about 13 kg/ yr. 

Many Vanuatu residents in urban areas, where the cash economy rather than the subsistence lifestyle prevails, prefer fish and would eat more of it if it were available at a price competitive with other protein foods such as imported chicken or domestically-produced beef. However the high costs of marketing of fish, coupled with a strong market based on the affluent tourist hotel and restaurant trade, has resulted in locally-produced fish being priced out of reach of many consumers in Vanuatu. This has been compensated for to some extent by growing imports of low-cost canned and frozen fish, as well as by the consumption of alternative forms of protein.

Economic role of the fishing industry 

It has been recently estimated by the Asian Development Bank that the catches of Vanuatu’s subsistence and coastal commercial fisheries are worth US$3,974,587 and US$681,801, respectively. It has also been calculated that subsistence and commercial fishing is responsible for about 2.2 per cent of Vanuatu’s GDP.

The 1993 National Agriculture Census includes the following fisheries-relevant employment information:

  • 35% of the 22,000 rural households in Vanuatu were engaged in fishing during the seven day period prior to the census;

  • Of the fishing households above, 40% reporting selling fish for some form of income;

  • 19% of rural households collect trochus shell.

Marine resources are of minor importance in terms of export earnings. The value of marine product exports in 2000 was reported to be US$400,000. During the 1990s the annual value averaged about $525,000. 

The Vanuatu Government receives payments for foreign fishing in the Vanuatu zone. In 1999 these access fees totaled about US$218,000.

Vanuatu also benefits from providing crew to foreign fishing vessels. According to a 1997 study by the Forum Fisheries Agency, work on foreign fishing vessels presently constitutes about 0.7 % of all formal employment in Vanuatu.


The considerable effort and resources devoted to the promotion of a small-scale deep bottom fishery initially resulted in success, at least in areas with access to urban markets, but the fishery has effectively collapsed in more remote areas owing to high production and distribution costs and the unwillingness of the government to continue subsidising marginal or unprofitable fishing activities. The entry of larger-scale, private-sector operators into the fishery has revitalized it to a certain degree, but care will need to be taken not to allow catches to exceed MSY or catch rates to fall below profitable levels. MSY for the fishery is estimated to be, at most, 300 t/ yr., but catches will probably need to be kept below this level if the fishery is to remain economic.

An urban-based sport-fishing charter industry has grown in tandem with the expansion of tourism and is thought to have potential for further growth. This fishery is an important provider of fresh fish to the Port Vila area.

The fact that several neighboring countries have established viable tuna longline fisheries, suggest that Vanuatu could do the same. The government wishes to increase onshore foreign investment in this sector, but progress is hesitant. Various schemes to reactivate the moribund fishing base at Palekula on Espiritu Santo have been undertaken over the past two decades but have not come to fruition. The recently-formulated Tuna Management Plan, envisages increased economic and social benefits from Vanuatu’s tuna resources. The Plan proposes a number of measures to obtain these benefits:

  • A development programme which is funded from fees and penalties;

  • Development of an FAD programme;

  • Expansion and clarification of duty exemptions for tuna-related development;

  • Information and support for tuna fishery development;

  • Legislation to facilitate fish exports;

  • Vanuatu crew requirements in license terms and conditions;

  • Crew support and training programmes.

A major factor in realizing the potential of the tuna resources is the degree of government support to these initiatives.

Subsistence fishing is second only to agriculture as a food source for villagers living in Vanuatu’s rural areas. Traditional management practices have been used in the past to conserve fishery stocks, but with advances in fishing techniques and equipment, and increasing pressure for financial reward from fishing, customary fishing practices have declined in some areas. The resulting pressure on inshore resources and numerous examples of localised resource depletion has heightened awareness of the need for better management of inshore fishing activities. Renewed interest in the potential of customary marine tenure to conserve inshore resources is now being shown both by government and by resource users. 

Any progress in development of aquaculture in Vanuatu is likely to be from private sector investment rather than the government attempting to initiate commercial activities by direct involvement.


The main legislation dealing with the management of fisheries in Vanuatu is the Fisheries Act (1982). The Act contains provisions concerning:

  • Fisheries management and development plans;

  • Fishery access arrangement;

  • Foreign fishing licenses;

  • Stowage of fishing gear by foreign vessels;

  • Minister’s power to enter into agreements or arrangements on harmonisation of licensing and enforcement;

  • Regional register of foreign fishing vessels;

  • Foreign investment in fisheries;

  • Local fishing vessel licenses;

  • Minister’s power to authorise scientific research operations;

  • Applications for fishing licences;

  • Minister’s power to refuse to issue or renew fishing licences;

  • Conditions of fishing licences;

  • Fees, royalties and other charges;

  • Period of validity of fishing licences;

  • Suspension and cancellation of fishing licences;

  • Appeals against refusal to issue or renew, suspension and cancellation of fishing licences;

  • Fishing for marine mammals prohibited in Vanuatu waters;

  • Prohibition of use of explosives and poisons for fishing;

  • Marine reserves;

  • Licensing of fish export processing establishments.

The Act was amended in 1989. Changes include certain definitions (e.g. definition of a local fishing vessel), powers of the Minister to enter into foreign fishing agreements, and observers.

Other relevant instruments include the Decentralization and Local Government Regions Act (1994), laws relating to the issue of Business Licences (CAP 173), the Maritime Zones Act (1981) and various Land laws. There is no single document that brings together in one place all the various legislative provisions relating to fisheries. 

Responsibility for the development and management of Vanuatu’s fisheries is vested in the Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry and Fisheries. The Department is headed by the Director of Fisheries and has three main sections: (1) Resource Assessment, Management, and Computer Information; (2) Administration and Finance; and (3) Rural Fisheries Development Programme. In the mid-1990s a total of 29 staff were employed in the Fisheries Department. In 1999 the figure dropped to 15 permanent officers as a result of the government’s Comprehensive Reform Programme.


The Department of Fisheries maintains direct contact on technical issues with regional and international organisations dealing in fisheries. Policy and other matters are managed in the first instance through the Department of Foreign Affairs. Vanuatu is a member of the South Pacific Commission (SPC), the South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) and the South Pacific Regional Environmental Programme (SPREP). Vanuatu is also party to a number of treaties and agreements relating to the management of regional fisheries, including:

  • the Treaty on Fisheries Between the Governments of Certain Pacific Island States and the Government of the United States of America;

  • the Convention for the Prohibition of Fishing with Long Driftnets in the South Pacific;

  • the Niue Treaty on Cooperation in Fisheries Surveillance and Law Enforcement in the South Pacific Region.

Vanuatu is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, and the Convention on the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. Vanuatu is also party to the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).


Fishery research in Vanuatu is the responsibility of the Department of Fisheries. A wide range of applied research activities have been carried out, often supported by regional or international agencies, in particular the French research organisation ORSTOM11which until 1997 maintained a field centre in Vanuatu. Research projects carried out have included:

  • biological studies on deep-bottom fish;

  • studies on the distribution and yield potential of tuna baitfish species;

  • resource assessments of trochus, green snail and beche-de-mer;

  • biological and population dynamics studies on coconut crab;

  • experimental hatchery rearing of trochus and green snail;

  • juvenile release experiments with trochus, and subsequent population monitoring.

Presently the three most important research projects of the Fisheries Department are:

  • Trochus re-seeding experiments;

  • Stock assessment of beche de mer, coconut crab, lobster, and giant clams ;

  • Seaweed farming trials.

Fisheries-related training is delivered through the National Fisheries School in Luganville, where vocational courses for fishermen are run at a purpose-built centre. The Marine Training School in Port Vila also provides basic training in seamanship for the fishing and shipping industries. The Fisheries School is operated by the Fisheries Department, while the Marine School is based at the Fisheries Department headquarters. Higher-level or academic training in fishery-related subjects is generally sought overseas.


Vanuatu has enjoyed fisheries sector assistance from a range of multi-lateral and bi-lateral donors. Support has included the funding of expatriate staff positions within the Department of Fisheries, establishment and operation of rural fishing centres, provision of vessels, FAD materials and equipment, construction of aquaculture facilities, collaborative research costs, and travel costs for training and attendance at meetings.

Important donors have included the Governments of Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Japan as well as the European Union. Other donors have included ACIAR, ICOD and CIDA. Assistance is also obtained from the international organisations of which Vanuatu is a member, including FAO, UNDP, ESCAP, and other United Nation agencies. The regional organisations serving Pacific Island countries, including the Forum Fisheries Agency, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, the Forum Secretariat, and the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission have been active in supporting Vanuatu’s fisheries sector.


http://www.spc.org.nc/coastfish/Countries/Vanuatu/vanuatu.htm- Information on Vanuatu fisheries, links to other sites concerning Vanuatu, and some SPC reports on fisheries in Vanuatu

http://www.adb.org/Documents/Reports/Vanuatu- Contains the Asian Development Bank review of Vanuatu agriculture and fisheries.

http://www.unescap.org/drpad/vc/conference/ex_vu- Information on the Vanuatu trochus management programme

http://www.nla.gov.au/lap/libs/vanuatudfl.html- Information on the library at the Vanuatu Fisheries Department.

Average 1999 rate of exchange US$1.00 = Vatu (VT) 129.07; 2000 - 137.64

2Source: South Pacific Commission Statistical Summary 2000.

3Source: South Pacific Commission 2000 mid-year estimate.

4Source for GDP data: Gillett and Lightfoot (2001). The Contribution of Fisheries to the Economies of Pacific Island Countries. Asian Development Bank, Manila.

5Sources: various government and non-government sources in Gillett and Lightfoot (2001)

6Breakdown (tonnes): subsistence 2,700; coastal commercial 230; offshore locally-based 0; total 2,930. The total does not include the 118 tonnes caught by foreign-based offshore vessels.

7Mostly trochus

8Does not include about 120 crew on foreign fishing vessels operating outside of Vanuatu.

9Value breakdown: subsistence US$3,974,587; coastal commercial US$681,801; offshore locally-based US$0; total US$4,656,388. Not included in the total is the value of the offshore catch by foreign-based vessels, US$253,087.

10Source: Vanuatu government documents and Gillett and Lightfoot (2001).

11Source: Vanuatu government documents and Gillett and Lightfoot (2001).