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2024 Whitley Award
Naomi Longa Papua New Guinea Marine
Empowering women to conserve coral reefs

Located within the western Pacific Ocean’s Coral Triangle, Kimbe Bay is an area of staggering marine biodiversity which contains 76% (605) of the world’s coral reef species and 6,000 coral reef and 800 species of fish. The Coral Triangle also provides food and livelihoods for more than 120 million people. This marine region, however, is under threat from overfishing, habitat degradation and climate change. Naomi and her team at The Sea Women of Melanesia work directly with local communities, primarily women, to design and implement Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs) to allow reefs to recover.


Kimbe Bay provides habitat for four Critically Endangered, 11 Endangered and 173 Vulnerable marine species. Of the 173 vulnerable species, 159 are scleractinian (stony) corals. Naomi and her team train local women to monitor the reefs using snorkelling gear, with some women also taught to scuba-dive. They collaborate and share their monitoring data with ReefCloud, a digital tool that uses artificial intelligence and advanced analysis to rapidly extract and share data from images of coral reefs around the world. The data is freely available to government, other NGOs working within the area, and the local community.


In Papua New Guinea, 97% of the land and coastal regions fall under traditional and customary tenure systems, which means that Indigenous and local communities play a key role in resource management. However, the increasing challenges of habitat degradation, urbanisation, agricultural run-off and climate change have driven many communities towards destructive fishing practices and overfishing. Local people are noticing a decline in fish stocks and asking for help. There are few effective marine protected areas in the Kimbe region and the government and NGOs desperately need to address this by establishing more Locally Managed Marine Areas that recognise the need to combine traditional knowledge with western science.


The Kimbe marine reserve development project is part of Naomi’s vision to extend a female driven marine conservation model around Papua New Guinea and the Eastern Coral Triangle. Melanesia is divided into patrilineal and matrilineal societies and women have specific roles in communities and households. It is important to understand and respect the cultural norm while advocating for gender equality and empowerment of women. Many women in the target communities have limited access to decision making processes though are keen to be involved in conservation work. Seawomen of Melanesia have created an effective programme that is flexible to accommodate societal norms, while having proven success in marine ecosystem recovery and the sustainable management of marine resources. By providing continuous mentorship and skills development to empower women to take leadership roles within their communities, they hope to start a wave which will encourage other women to drive positive change.

With her Whitley Award, Naomi will:

  • Create 4 new LMMAs with the local communities, expanding their coverage around Kimbe Bay
  • Engage and train 10 women in 5 local villages to monitor coral reefs
  • Establish a local marine conservation committee in each of the communities, with equal representation of men and women
  • Reduce destructive fishing practices such as dynamite and overfishing, and drive a transition towards sustainable practices such as no-take zones, selective fishing gear and traditional methods like spear and handlines
  • Provide a blueprint for similar, women-led initiatives to enable the replication of this work across the Eastern Coral Triangle

top facts:

  • Scleractinian ‘stony’ or ‘hard’ corals are the world’s primary reef-builders, forming the solid base from which the rest of the reef ecosystem develops.
  • Kimbe Bay is home to species such as the largetooth sawfish, Pondicherry shark, olive ridley and leatherback turtles, scalloped hammerhead and sei whale.
  • Crown-of-thorns starfish are a voracious predator of coral reefs, and outbreaks are threatening the reefs around Kimbe. Naomi’s team use specialised injection gear to tackle this.