By Graeme Binin

BUKA, Bougainville (Sunkamap Times, March 2004) - A ring of more than 20 small islets on a reef surrounding a large lagoon is all that makes up the fascinating Nukumanu Atoll, better known as the Tasman Group of Islands after the European navigator Abel Tasman, who first sighted the islands in the early 1640s.

Of the land, none of the sandy strip over coral is more than a meter or so above sea level. Tasman lies just 4 degrees south of the equator and is one of a number of remote isles off the North Solomons Province.

Tasman Islanders, or Nukumans, are actually Polynesians, as distinct from their darker skinned Melanesian wantoks on Bougainville and the Solomon Islands. The Nukumans are closely related to the Mortlocks, Feads and the Ontong Java people, the latter share a sea border (PNG/Solomons) and are located a few kilometers south of the Tasman Islands. In addition the people also have similarities with those of Tuvalu and Tokelau islands north of Samoa.

When I first came to the islands in February 2003, I was impressed by the incredibly tidy big village of Amotu, pristine white sandy beaches - all of which summed up a tropical paradise. In Tasman, tattooed elderly people greet you with a smile even though they hardly speak a word or two of tok pisin. The inquisitive children follow you around asking you all sorts of questions in their own language.

As with most atolls, the land resources of the Tasman are few. The islanders grow kano-ka-na – a kind of swamp taro and bananas. Coconuts, however, prove to be an important part of the island diet. The soft inside of sprouting coconuts (kuru) is a staple food and coconut flesh is happily consumed with raw fish and clams.

The limited food plants and economic opportunities on land have encouraged residents to make maximum use of the lagoon and nearby ocean. This has resulted in the Nukumans being excellent fishermen, divers and sailors. Quite simply, if they were not skilled ocean people, they would have died out centuries ago.

In addition to the seafood used for local consumption, the two most important marine resources of Tasman are trochus shells (used for making mother-of-pearl buttons and jewelery) and beche-de-mer (mainly exported to Asia for food). These two products are the backbone of the Tasman economy.

The term beche-de-mer refers to the dried product manufactured from the marine animals commonly known as sea cucumbers, sea slugs or scientifically called holothurians. ‘Pislama’, as it is referred to in tok pisin, is produced by a process of boiling, cleaning, drying and in some cases smoking. The finished product, which has a hard rubbery texture, is normally prepared by repeated soaking or boiling before it is consumed. The product is considered a delicacy and an aphrodisiac in China and South-East Asia.

Ask a Tasman fellow what his occupation is and he’ll tell you that deep free diving for beche-de-mer is the kind of work that earns him more than what a government teacher would earn in a fortnight.

To learn more about beche-de- mer diving, Steven Satoa, a beche-de-mer fisherman, had this to say: "I’ve been diving ever since I got married to my Tasman wife in the late 1990s. Young divers are much better because they can dive deeper than those of 24 years and upwards who ‘retire’ to easier types of fishing, as they cannot dive nearly as deep as the younger boys."

Steven is from Novah Village, Buka, but he has adapted well to the Tasman environment. He said the actual diving techniques are interesting.

In waters about 20 metres deep, using masks, fins, snorkel, the diver hyperventilates, then slowly descends (rather than hurries) to the bottom, using only a partial ‘dog paddle’ type arm-stroke. He is able to remain leisurely at that depth for a considerable period, before calmly and slowly rising to the surface. The absence of any long arm-strokes or quickly stretching back to the surface at the end of the dive is noticeable.

In water deeper than 20 metres, a ‘torpedo’ is dropped over the target. This device is a lead weight with finlets and a barbed shaft at one end. Monofilament fishing line is attached to the other end. Like a wire-guided missile, the torpedo can be directed after launch by tugging to one side on the fishing line. If the diver is a good shot, a beche-de-mer will be stuck and subsequently pulled to the surface. Sometimes, though, a poor turtle may stray into range …

Presently, there are high prices for beche-de-mer, a huge overseas market and eager divers. These factors combined with the limited area of the Tasman lagoon, has resulted in a situation where over-exploitation is becoming a serious problem. Too much beche-de-mer is being harvested. Without some form of regulation, the market forces could easily drive the Tasman beche-de-mer resources to commercial extinction.

To ensure sustainability, the islands’ leaders close the lagoon for beche-de-mer during alternate years. During the closed years the lagoon is open to trochus diving.

The diving is not without danger. Even though sharks are plentiful, they rarely cause problems. Of far greater concern is free-diving blackout. It is not uncommon for divers, who dive for 6 to 8 hours per day, to lose consciousness while holding their breath down at 20 plus metres due to total exhaustion. Some deaths have occurred in the past few years. The latest death occurred in October 2003, when a young father drowned while beche-de-mer diving.

These deaths do not bother most young Nukumans, however. Diving is the only employment they know of and the only work that interests them for the future.

The future for beche-demer divers is uncertain. Whether they will be able to continue with beche-de-mer harvesting depends on their home-grown management system system and the determination of the Tasman Chief, David Teaku, and his men, to make the system work.

March 31, 2004

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