"I am from the Titan tribe and my life depends on the sea."
Manoi Kanomon, Patusi clan
By Misty Herrin
With global fish supplies crashing, The Nature Conservancy is racing to help communities around the world protect the oceans’ nurseries — coral reefs. In remote Pere village on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea we find a story of precarious hope.
It didn’t take science to tell Ponawan Pokakes of the Titan tribe that there is trouble in the waters beyond Pere’s shores. Fish are much scarcer now than when his father taught him to fish coral grouper — kekwa — with bamboo spears. But the Conservancy believes that science is the key to solving the daunting riddle facing Pere and countless coastal communities like it around the world — how can they meet their growing needs today without depleting the sea forever?
With the Conservancy’s help, Pere village recently created a Marine Protected Area to prevent over-fishing on reefs where grouper spawn — a move that will help stabilize fish populations that villagers depend on for survival. But threats to the reefs are complex and mounting, including the never imagined impacts climate change. New solutions are needed and time is running out.
Loss of Traditions that Protected the Sea
For generations, Titan customs helped balance how marine resources were used — clans were named for the particular species they alone were entitled harvest. Only the kekwa clan could fish for kekwa, for example. Clans developed ingenious fishing methods using vines and bamboo to harvest and share with the entire village.
Read Ponawan’s account of the Titan’s ancient ways, such as the use of coconut oil to create “windows” on the surface of the water to better see and spear fish.
But globalization and growing populations have pushed villagers to go beyond traditional ways to harvest enough fish to meet their needs today.
“When money arrived, the teeth of the dog could not buy school fees. I went to school and received a free education. But when my children went to school money was dominant and I had to pay for their school fees,” explains Pere resident Petrus Panalou “When this happened the traditional access system shifted to open access.”
From Bamboo Spears to Spear Guns
Decades of unchecked fishing with increasingly harmful practices have led to a gradual, but escalating, decline in fish populations that Manus Island’s villagers believed would never diminish.
Despite the alarming drop, Manus’ coral reefs still harbor a spectacular amount and diversity of fish — including grouper species increasingly rare because of high demand from mainland Asia.
Conservancy scientist Richard Hamilton and Manuai Matawai visited three villages — Pere, Locha and Tawi — in 2004 to raise awareness that overfishing — especially in the particularly rich spawning sites these villages own — can cripple the sea’s ability to keep producing fish.
Following Richard and Manuai’s advice, each village decided to impose simple bans on destructive fishing practices at spawning sites. Knowing that the abundance of grouper would eventually catch the attention of commercial fishing operations, they also warned villagers of the dangers posed by the Live Reef Fish Food Trade (LRFFT).
Short Term Gain, Long Term Damage
Commercial LRFFT operations promise quick income for villages in exchange for the right to fish their waters for brief periods. But their modern, highly destructive methods — including targeting of spawning aggregations and the use of cyanide — wreak far more damage than villagers could have imagined.
After companies leave, the money quickly disappears and the sobering truth is clear — the sea’s bounty is not infinite and without fish to provide villagers with food and income, they have nowhere else to turn.
When an LRFFT company did indeed approach the villages in 2005, Pere and Locha turned them away. But Tawi didn’t. In six months the company caught 13.2 tons of fish. Research conducted since then by Richard and Manuai confirms a steep drop in fish populations in the fishing grounds — and they have yet to recover.
Knowledge is Power
Pere villagers know that there’s no going back to the old ways. Fewer fish are harder to catch with traditional spears and long-lines. And families need money; not for lavish luxuries — for food, clothing and the chance to send their children to school.
So Richard, Manuai and other Conservancy experts are bringing the latest science to pick up where traditional wisdom leaves off and equip villagers to better protect their resources. Coral reef ecosystems are complex and fragile. But with constant monitoring and a flexible regimen of access and bans, the people of Pere and villages like it can continue to fish their waters.
They simply must fish smarter — and with an eye always on the future. For example, the Conservancy has helped Pere establish Fish Aggregating Devices (FADS) to increase the catch of tuna — a fast-growing species — and take pressure off reef fish, which grow slowly.
More Hope on the Horizon
Villagers report a promising increase in fish numbers since Pere first imposed limits in 2004. The Conservancy has since helped the village create a rigorous management plan for their MPA, is training villagers to do their own monitoring, and has helped leaders petition successfully to have their community-based choices recognized into official law — a vital step if they are to prevent outsiders from breaking their regulations.
But enforcement is tough and sea life doesn’t follow boundaries on maps — the choices made by other villages will impact Pere.
So while Rick and Manuai continue to work with Pere, the Conservancy is also working at the highest levels of government to create better opportunities for marine conservation in the Coral Triangle. Sound laws and more resources will give villages like Pere a fighting chance.
This effort took a major step forward on May 15, 2009 when leaders of all six Coral Triangle countries officially launched a Conservancy-supported effort called the Coral Triangle Initiative. It’s a complex set of commitments and plans of action for combating overfishing and even climate change.
For Pere, it means more hope for their reefs, their fish and their families’ futures.
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