Seacology gives the annual award to recognise heroic achievement by people who seldom receive publicity: indigenous leaders who risk their lives and wellbeing to protect their island's ecosystems and culture.
Seacology awarded Mr Aini $10,000 and flew him from Papua New Guinea to Berkeley, California where he was honoured at a ceremony last Thursday.
While working for the PNG National Fishing Authority in the 1980s, John Aini realised that the fish stock around his home province of New Ireland was on the decline.
If this trend continued, Aini feared that the coastal villages on the islands in New Ireland which relied on the fish for their livelihood would be in trouble.
As is often the case in developing countries, there were few effective institutions that could help, so Aini had to get creative.
In his own free time, he began travelling by boat and truck to as many villages around New Ireland as he could, giving presentations on the need for villagers to use their natural resources sustainably and resist harmful commercial fishing efforts.
In 1993, Aini formalized these ‘Awareness Roadshows’ by launching Ailan Awareness (AA), which now helps villages develop marine resource management plans and has recently established the Marine Resource Management school to educate and inspire the province’s young people.
By empowering coastal communities to manage marine resources, AA aims to protect the people and reefs of New Ireland for future generations.
The impact of AA on the province has been profound according to Dr Bruce Harris, an anthropologist working in PNG.
“Ailan Awareness has contributed more than any other organisation in New Ireland – private sector, civil society or governmental – to the preservation of marine resources for the benefit of the people who have lived in harmony with and depended on those resources for millennia," Dr. Harris said.
"By working directly with coastal villagers to manage the marine resources they depend on, Aini has done so much to help the people and protect the reefs of New Ireland for generations to come," said Duane Silverstein, Seacology's executive director.
“This award signals that the world recognises our efforts to contribute in our little ways to sustaining our people’s livelihoods in changing and trying times,” John Aini said. “Our sincere and most heartfelt gratitude on behalf of the people of New Ireland and Papua New Guinea for this recognition.”