[Coral-List] Re: Melissa keyes' message

Charles Birkeland charlesb at hawaii.edu
Sun May 2 09:41:41 EDT 2004

Dear Colleagues

The message from Melissa Keyes was eloquent and sounds true for the 
Caribbean. However, there may be hope out here in the Pacific. Stocks 
of reef fishes in the tropical Pacific have been reduced drastically 
below their natural levels in many locations, but there may be a 
turnaround for some of these places, as the review by Bob Johannes 
(Annual Reviews of Ecology and Systematics 2002) portends.

Bob was always ahead of his time. In the early decades of his career 
he called attention to the degradation of reef resources because of 
the demise of traditional management practices. But in this ARES 
review, one of his final publications, was a documentation of the 
renaissance of community-based traditional resource management in 
Vanuatu, independent Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Palau, and Tuvalu. 
More recently, the same has started in American Samoa. On another 
positive note, I have heard that the French have been responsible and 
quite protective of their reefs against the economic forces of the 
burgeoning live reef fish restaurant trade from Hong Kong, although I 
do not know this directly. And, of course, the GBRMPA has been 
operating the GBR in a manner that serves as the model for responsible 
multiuse resource management. Regrettably, the government of the State 
of Hawaii has not been able to follow suit.

The demise of traditional resource management in the Pacific was 
largely due to the globalization of the economy, immigration and 
growth of populations, the weakening of traditional authority, and the 
introduction of advanced technology. How did the recent turnaround 
begin? On the smaller islands the people are still close to their 
resources and perceive the degradation. In the central Pacific, they 
often still have pride in their traditional culture. In these smaller 
island governments, the governors or presidents can act more quickly 
and decisively. Two examples follow. 

In American Samoa, the commercial fishermen were spearfishing by free-
diving and sustainably supplying the local fish market. But in 1994, 
one group of outsiders plus a couple of locals started an enterprise 
with scuba and nightlights. As documented in the report of Mike Page 
of the American Samoan Division of Marine and Wildlife Resources, the 
catch of Bolbometopon and other parrotfishes briefly increased by 15 
fold. Humphead wrasse and other reef fishes were also harvested. In 
competition with the fishermen with high technology, it became 
difficult for the American Samoan population to feed their families 
with subsistence fishing. There were two public hearings in which the 
Samoans chastised fishing with scuba. (The Samoans are an eloquent 
culture. Public hearings in Samoa are almost like a poetry recital or 
a Shakespeare play.) The following Monday, the Governor created an 
Executive Order banning the use of fishing with scuba. The scuba 
fishermen then moved their operation to independent Samoa where, in a 
few months, about 20 villages met and passed a ban on use of scuba in 
fishing. It is generally considered that spearfishing is a respectable 
livelihood or sport; but the use of technology in fishing such as 
dynamite, scuba and nightlights is shameful and irresponsible. In 
French Polynesia, Noumea, Queensland, American Samoa and other places, 
spearfishing and scuba are respected separately, but the combination 
is shameful and illegal. 

Following the seawater warming of 1997/98 Mr. Tommy Remengesau, Jr., 
Vice President of the Republic of Palau at the time, and currently the 
President, published instructions in the local newspaper to the 
citizens on how they might facilitate reef recovery. He advised 
refraining from taking herbivorous reef fishes for food because the 
herbivores are essential for survival of coral recruits by keeping the 
algae controlled. He also asked people not to step on the few 
remaining nearshore living coral colonies because in doing so they 
would damage the broodstock for recovery of coral populations. Like 
marine reserves, these small-scale actions will not stop global 
warming, but they might at least facilitate replenishment of coral 
populations and they could focus and secure a perception of community 
and responsibility among the stakeholders.  The renovation of 
traditional community awareness of responsibility may be the most 
effective path to take, and this is the path in some island nations of 
the central Pacific. But not Hawaii.  Why?

Hawaii has an immense society and governing body. The size of societal 
institutions and modern technology buffer the citizen from direct 
dependency on natural resources and this creates a society detached 
from immediate concern for the sustainability of resources. Pacific 
islanders traditionally managed their resources strictly because they 
had no alternative resources. If they mismanaged their resources, the 
community could starve and so the severity of enforcement of code of 
conduct was severe, even by death in Hawaii in the past. In modern 
times, we are detached from potential problems in resource management 
because of the buffer of our large society and technology. If we 
eliminate a fish stock, we can fly elsewhere to fish for sport or just 
go to the grocery store for food. We will never starve, at least in 
developed countries. If a fisherman goes out of business, there is 
welfare or other sources of employment. A fisherman sometimes claims 
concern for sustainability, but his actions belie this as superficial. 
This may be the basis of the lack of political will. This lack of 
concern for the future of resources has led to an unprecedented "Right 
to Fish Act" in which it is illegal to regulate fishing unless the 
cause of the decline in fish stocks can be proven to be caused by 
overfishing rather than something else (House Bill No. 2861, State of 
Hawaii Legislature). If you have an inherent right to something, you 
are not accountable for it and have no responsibilities for it. In 
traditional island societies, fishing was a priviledge, and with 
priviledge came strict regulations for the welfare of all.

This detachment from the basic resources caused by our global society 
is exacerbated by the efficiency of extraction by modern technology. 
In the past, we were limited by our abilities. Traditional fisheries 
had technological limitations and therefore a substantial breeding 
stock was able to survive. 

But the activities in the central tropical Pacific provide hope. There 
is a renaissance of traditional community-based resource management in 
some island nations. Australia is even larger than Hawaii (slightly), 
yet they are managing their resources on the GBR following the 
Precautionary Principle (opposite of the Right to Fish Act), so even 
large societies and governing bodies can act responsibly. No 
guarantee, but at least some hope. We should not give up.



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