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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (September 13, 2002 – Marshall Islands Journal)---Dwindling fish stocks and reef destruction caused by commercial fishermen feeding the veracious live reef fish food trade in Asia have become major concerns in the Pacific islands.

But it’s not only Asian fishermen using cyanide to catch tons and tons of reef fish that is causing the problem. Locally based and sometimes village-based commercial fishermen are also helping to wipe out fish that have been a staple in the diets of hundreds and sometimes thousands of islanders.

In the Marshall Islands, Arno is a prime example of the impact of locally based commercial fishing. The Japanese government is currently funding a stock assessment after years of local commercial fishing is reported to have greatly reduced fish stocks in Majuro’s neighbor.

For Asian fishermen who are cashing in on the lucrative live reef fish trade in Hong Kong and other Asian cities, using cyanide is a quick and easy way to collect targeted species. For unsuspecting Pacific Islands, the damage to reef from cyanide use can be serious and long lasting.

Groupers, coral trout and the humphead wrasse can command up to $40 per pound in Hong Kong.

As fish stocks in the Indonesian and Southeast Asian area have declined from over-fishing, commercial fishermen have pushed out into the central Pacific. According to the International Marine life Alliance, a watchdog organization that tracks the live reef fish trade, live reef fishermen have been sporadically active in the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau and Papua New Guinea.

Three countries in the region have launched innovative and so far successful conservation and management programs banning fishing – by anyone – in certain areas. Using traditional but long neglected customs of "taboo," Palau, the Cook Islands and Fiji have independently reversed destruction of fragile reef systems. While all Pacific islands have – or had – built in conservation methods revolving around taboos, traditions are conveniently forgotten as money commands people’s interest.

Halting all fishing, including that of the village fisherman providing food for his family each day, wasn’t always a decision easily arrived at. But what eventually sold even subsistence fishermen on supporting the "no-take" zones was that after as little as six months, the fish population multiplied exponentially. And since the fish don’t pay attention to designated borders, fishing just outside the no-take zones produced more fish than before the fishing bans went into effect – calming early fears of local fishermen.

Indeed, in the Cook Islands 28 percent of the shoreline on Rarotonga, the main island, is now in "ra‘ui" (no-take) zones; in Fiji eight villages near the Suva area banded together to halt commercial exploitation fish and clams; and in Palau four marine reserves have been established.

Palau allowed Asian live reef fishermen to fish in its waters until 1994, then banned it. "It’s more valuable to have the fish for divers to see," says Palau International Coral Reef Center researcher Yimnang Golbuu. "We might get $1 or $2 for one fish (from commercial fishermen), but divers pay $100 to watch the fish swim around."

Palau’s Blue Corner, in the Rock Islands, is estimated to generate $2.8 million annually in revenues from divers.

"Villagers have to recognize the problem (of over-fishing) themselves not because some United Nations or government expert tells them," says Noah Idechong, a founder of the Palau Conservation Society and now a Delegate in the Palau National Congress.

Getting villagers involved in the process was essential to establishing the successful marine protected reserves throughout Palau, he says.

"Perception guides communities," says Idechong. "It doesn’t matter what’s in reports. That’s why it’s essential to involve the community in conservation discussions." Matching their intrinsic traditional knowledge about the local marine environment with scientific data helps villagers to see things outside of their small area. "When villagers see it themselves, it makes sense," he says. "They can deal with local threats because there are local systems such as ‘bul’ (for conservation). But they’ve got no system to deal with foreign poachers."

That’s why a partnership between village and government is needed. "You need both: local villages can take action quickly but this needs insurance from the national government (through legislation)," Idechong says.

In Rarotonga, the last time anyone had used "ra‘ui" (taboo) was in the 1950s. But with reef fish declining rapidly local residents banded together to push the ra‘ui idea. "Many people born since 1950 didn’t know the value of ra‘ui," says Aka‘ita Ama, a traditional leader who led the movement for marine conservation that now covers nearly 30 percent of the Rarotonga shoreline in five designated areas. There was especially resistance from the "younger generation" who didn’t understand ra‘ui, Ama said. "They didn’t realize that mullet had been much bigger and more plentiful before," she said. "They thought it was just this way." But by 2000, the bonanza of fish from the ra‘ui convinced even the most negative.

To get support for ra‘ui, they met with leaders, communities and students to enlist support for establishing ra‘ui. "We didn’t ask the government to do it for us," she says. "Our ancestors knew how to do it."

Ama says that what they discovered is that within six months of establishing ra‘ui, "we got an overflow of fish." Ra‘ui allowed a sanctuary for spawning and breeding fish, affording local fishermen a much healthier stock to fish from.

Each of the five ra‘ui areas has a community elected committee to manage it, she says.

Josh Mitchell, a marine biologist working for Marine Resources in the Cook Islands, said that in one of the protected ra‘ui areas there were 14 species of fish in 1998 when ra‘ui went into affect. Two years later, the number of species increased to 31. "The number of fish increased 20 times in two years," he added.

Joeli Veitayake, a marine studies instructor at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, described a unique partnership of local communities, USP and non-governmental conservation groups that is having a big impact on the fishing grounds of eight villages in Verata on the eastern coast of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu.

USP and conservationists worked with local residents to identify threats to their subsistence fishing areas. Ratu Pio Radikedike said that every week, villagers harvested clams and fish to take to market to sell for money, while the increasing population ate up the resources. Following a 1997 workshop, the villagers adopted no-take zones around their villages. "Our elders said that we used to do that, but it’s been lost by the new generation," Radikedike says.

In the no-take zone, they discovered a 300 percent increase in clams in just one year, he says, adding that their surveys show that there has been a 35 percent increase in village household income as a result in the increase clams, shellfish, lobsters and fish in the area.

"I’m spreading the gospel about this project to other parts of Fiji," he says. "It means a brighter future for us."



While other islands such as Palau, the Cook Islands and Fiji have established strong community-based fisheries conservation programs, the Marshall Islands is far behind in conservation management.

Several atolls in the RMI continue to allow live reef fishing that is destructive to both subsistence fishing and the reefs. One company that was booted out of Likiep recently is now active in Mili. A significant amount of live reef fishing has taken place in Enewetak. Live reef fishing aside, there are several community/local government initiatives in the RMI that are in their infancy and could begin to show that communities in the Marshall Islands actually do put welfare of their marine resources ahead of the quick dollar.



The Marshall Islands has its own traditional marine conservation methods, including the concept of "mo" – which mirrors that of "bul" in Palau and "ra‘ui" in the Cook Islands, both of which are being used to prevent fishermen from fishing in certain reef areas to reduce the threat of over-fishing. But while "mo" – or taboo – is a well-established tradition in the Marshall Islands, its use is infrequent to non-existent in the modern Marshall Islands.



Enforcement of traditional taboo or no-take fishing zones seems to be no problem for Pacific Islanders.

In the Cook Islands, the specter of black magic seems to play a part. "One young boy asked me, ‘what are you going to do if someone breaks the ra‘ui?’" says Aka‘iti Ama. "I told him, ‘you’ll see when the time comes.’" She indicated that in generations gone by, elders would put a curse on people for breaking ra‘ui restrictions.

In Palau, community pressure is a potent factor influencing compliance with fines. That, and a "guilty if charged" attitude seems to keep most people in line. Palau National Congress Delegate Noah Idechong says that because the "bul" for no-take zones are adjacent to villages, people know if someone violates the bul.

Local government or traditional leaders might not catch the perpetrator in the act of fishing, but they’ll sidle up the next day and tell him he’s fined a certain amount of money for fishing in a no-take zone.

"The fine gets bigger if you argue because it shows disrespect," Idechong says. Not only that, but if the person argues against a fine, it’s a big embarrassment for relatives, so they rush to pay the fine, Idechong says.

The Marshall Islands Journal, Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail:  Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year US $87.00; international $213.00 (air mail).

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