Fish & Tradition: On the Pacific Island of Pohnpei, a New Approach to Old Customs May Help Revive the Island's Fisheries

By Furlich, Danielle | Geographical, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Fish & Tradition: On the Pacific Island of Pohnpei, a New Approach to Old Customs May Help Revive the Island's Fisheries


Furlich, Danielle, Geographical


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Nahnihd does his best to be unpredictable. The man who watches over the Nahtik marine sanctuary--an underwater stretch of 23 coral-studded hectares near Pohnpei, the Pacific island on which the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia resides--comes at odd times of day or, more often, night. That way, poachers don't know when he'll be there.

Positioned on a large bamboo raft anchored at the sanctuary's edge, Nahnihd stays for hours, listening for the motorised skiffs of poachers. Even in tire dead of night, he can judge whether the boats are stopping in the sanctuary or outside it by listening to the motors.

When he isn't monitoring Nahtik's waters, Nahnihd, too, makes his living as a fisherman. Fishing is a way of life for most people here; even those who don't fish full time still occasionally work the ocean to put dinner on the table or supplement their family's income. In a culture where people gather for communal feasts to mark births, anniversaries and other special events, fishing is even protected by the Pohnpei constitution: the document grants an exception to some fishing restrictions if the fisherman's purpose is to provide food for a cultural obligation.

But such long-standing fishing traditions, based on centuries of plenty, are now running into a modern-day dilemma: the island's fish stocks have begun to decline. And as fish have become more difficult to catch, many islanders have turned to illegally fishing in newly protected waters such as the Nahtik sanctuary.

In the past, individual village chiefs would have decided how and when to close local fishing grounds, and it would have fallen to them to deal with any violators. But it has been decades since the chiefs wielded that power. These days, people expect Pohnpei's Western-style state government to regulate fisheries and protect ocean sanctuaries.

The government, however, has done little to enforce fishing restrictions. In fact, one of Pohnpei's governors was once caught poaching in the Nahtik sanctuary. Not long after, the legislature partly dismantled enforcement efforts by clamping down on the patrol budget.

The tide may be turning, however. The governments of five Micronesian nations and territories--including the Federated States of Micronesia--have made ambitious public commitments to conserve marine resources near their shores. At the state level, efforts are under way to create more ocean sanctuaries near Pohnpei.

And in Nahnihd's own community, the traditional chiefs have begun to take matters into their own hands to protect marine sanctuaries. With the support of US-based environmental NGO the Nature Conservancy and others, they are reaching back into Pohnpei's past, reviving customs to manage fishing that their grandparents might recognise.

A COMMON PROBLEM

Pohnpei's dilemma has been repeated with variations throughout the world's fisheries. Countless island and coastal leaders have begun to recognise the importance of protecting their fisheries, but have struggled to find ways to do so.

Isolated from major land masses and markets, island nations in the tropics often depend heavily on their natural resources, including coral reefs and the fish that live in them. In places such as Pohnpei, a decline in the number of reef fish directly affects people's diets, income and cultural traditions.

And that is what many Micronesians are now experiencing. According to recent studies, reef fish near populated islands throughout the country--which encompasses 1.6 million square kilometres of ocean and more than 600 islands and atolls--show clear signs of overfishing.

Yet the same studies found that Micronesia's coral reef ecosystems largely appear diverse, healthy and resilient. Although global threats such as rising water temperatures and ocean acidification are already under way, Micronesian nations still have an opportunity to safeguard the functioning marine systems that sustain their people.

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