Ulithi shares something cool and green with the world June 1, 2019 | By Joyce McClure

Ulithi shares something cool and green with the world
June 1, 2019

Originally Published in Pacific Island Times

By Joyce McClure

Colonia, Yap– It all began with the green sea turtles. Home to one of the giant creatures’ largest nesting areas in Micronesia, Ulithi has been the site of some of the region’s most important research into turtle conservation since 1991. But the work was sporadic.

Beginning in 2004, the Oceanic Society began supporting the effort and trained a crew of local men in tagging, data collection and tissue sampling. Since then, these “local scientists” have tagged and released thousands of these ocean-going reptiles that arrive on the uninhabited island groupings of Gielop and Iar from April to August every year to lay their eggs. The data has been published by such organizations as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to increase the scientific community’s understanding of migration patterns, feeding grounds and other important insights into the life of turtles.

Asked how he first got involved in the project, John Rulmal, Jr. says, “I inherited the work. I did it just for fun when I returned to my home island of Falalop after going to school and working in Hawaii for several years.” His father was the one who first envisioned the need for management of this important natural resource that provides needed protein to the local diet, as well as the opportunity for community involvement and “a few jobs.”

“I didn’t have that level of awareness at first,” Rulmal says. But the more he got involved in the project by comparing, for example, the time of the nesting to when the traditional leaders allowed “takes” by the island’s residents and how it impacted survival rates, other aspects began to come into focus and eventually became his passion and vocation.

That work has since expanded and Rulmal is a prime example of someone who left the island for a college degree and greater work opportunities, but opted to return after several years to help his community.

As he thought about his opportunities to stay on the island and how community resources could be managed, it occurred to Rulmal that the turtle work might be a good opportunity to develop tourism. His degree, after all, was in tourism development and his father, one of the co-authors of the country’s constitution, had built the Ulithi Lodge to attract visitors to the island. Taking over the lodge after his father passed away, he began to see the potential of the turtles as “something cool to share with the world” and how this might be commercialized.

He eventually began working in close partnership with Jennifer Cruce Horeg of the Ulithi Marine Turtle Project to oversee the fieldwork. Horeg had been involved in the turtle project for several years along with natural resource specialist, Marjorie Falanruw of Yap, Birgit Winning, first with The Oceanic Society and now Bluecology, and Rulmal’s father. Then, Nicole Crane, Senior Conservation Scientist at the Oceanic Society, joined the project. It was a golden team with years of experience to share with the islanders. “Nicole has been a parent, a friend, a mentor to me,” says Rulmal.

Crane came to the island to learn from the residents. She didn’t bring a plan and was adamant that the people of the islands were the ones who could best decide what was needed and what was possible. Too often, she thought, people and organizations have brought plans to the island and the residents are told how they are to be done. But tossing outside plans and money at the problem is not the solution. Ulithi has been inhabited for thousands of years with sustainable, traditional and cultural knowledge of the reef and the marine life it supports. This information has been passed from generation to generation but rapid environmental changes and their impact have disrupted traditional ways.

“When Nicole asks what do I think, she means what do I think,” says Rulmal. “You mean what I think counts?” he asked her. After seeing many projects fail over the years because the community was excluded, Rulmal now saw something different. “That was the paradigm shift,” he says. “The true partnership. Then we were able to think we were bringing value to the table.”

Rulmal’s vision is to capture the value of tradition and culture that have sustained Ulithi for millennia and share them with the larger world. “But,” he says, “it’s definitely not about me. What I do and say in no way takes away from the community ownership and credit for it.

What does tradition mean? What is traditional management? What about the daily lives of the Yapese and the pride they have in their way of life? What we can do to help future generations value the traditions and culture that past generations passed on through storytelling? These were some of the questions Rulmal began asking himself and the others. But the community first needed to learn how to manage their sustainable food supply from the surrounding ocean in light of the changes that were taking place both environmentally and culturally. The response, Rulmal notes, “was a revolutionary approach that lets our community lead through traditional management backed by modern science.”

As a result, attention began to expand from the turtles to the surrounding reef. Ulithi has 200 miles of reef and 41 low islets that encircle the fourth largest lagoon in the world. It is the nearest known land mass to Challenger Deep, the deepest point on earth calculated at 35,755 to 35,814 feet. Working in partnership with the chiefs, leaders, community members and scientific organizations that expanded to include Bluecology and biologists from several universities in California, the nonprofit organization One People One Reef was formed in 2010 to broaden the work by bringing “traditions and modern science together in a revolutionary approach to sustainable ocean management.”

Fish stocks were being depleted in the surrounding reef and the health of the reef was declining. A primary food source was at risk. A cry for help went out and Crane brought together a group of scientists to assess the problem that combined modern science with the islanders’ ancient techniques of ecological management. Today, the fish stock is being restored and has seen the people through two major storms that devastated the islands.

The paradigm shift that Rulmal describes of combining the modern with the traditional has also been brought into play in the aftermath of the destructive storms when aid organizations began shipping containers of materials that were not useful. They called a halt to the shipments and took the lead to determine what was needed. “No more bottled water! No more high heels!” Rulmal laughs. “We took the opportunity to say, ‘Wait a minute, we don’t need to take it as it’s given.’” In a country that has often passively accepted aid with no questions asked, taking responsibility for what was needed was a new way of doing things.

Today, in addition to online fundraising and grants from the National Science Foundation and other foundations and organizations, funding is provided by the US-FSM Joint Economic Management Committee that promotes “the effective use of funding” under the COMPACT agreement. Programs now include bringing together high school and college students from the U.S. and Ulithi every summer for three weeks to work on coral reef science, conservation, and community projects. In 2017, the program began expanding to other Outer Islands, including Satawal and Woleai, with marine scientists joining youth and leaders from Ulithi for two weeks to help build capacity for management of reef resources. The first year, 15 researchers and participants used scientific assessments along with traditional management and community education to help develop plans that were right for each community. Eight atolls located across 600 miles of ocean have now been brought into the program.

Rulmal is animated when he talks about the group’s latest project, a children’s book of ten collected stories from the four inhabited islands around the Ulithi lagoon that is being published by the National Geographic in Ulithian and translated into English. The book will use the oral tradition of navigation stories and other stories that have value for children growing up in the current millennium for classroom learning.

Next up for the organization and its youth leaders is the eradication of monitor lizards and rats on the islands. The lizards were first brought to the islands for food by the Japanese. Today, along with the rats, they eat the turtle eggs. “We want to bring the island back to where it was before they were introduced,” Rulmal says. The three-year project will begin in 2020 on an uninhabited island. Non-toxic cereal wheat bait will be distributed on the island and motion-sensitive cameras will be set up to assess the animals’ density. The following year, samples of the creatures will be collected and a UV light will be shined on them to determine which and how many have consumed the bait, what it means to ocean runoff and other test factors. If successful, the toxic bait will be introduced. There are no people, dogs, cats, birds or native trees left on the island so the impact will be limited to the lizards and rats.

Now that these projects are gaining traction, Rulmal is focusing his attention on asking the youth what they think. “When the kids from California watch in amazement as the local kids make coconut oil, our youth get a sense of pride in what they do,” he says. It’s validation for the value of their culture and way of life. Rulmal expresses hope that they, too, will return after getting an education and continue supporting their home community with the same deep commitment that he and his father before him felt. ghjfghjfg

One (of unusually many) groups that will be out this summer is our youth program which is made up of 8-10 youth from Ulithi, 8 youth from the US, and this year, we’re so excited 🙌 to have 2 youth from Woleai Atoll. The students work together on tackling various science projects💪🔬, like monitoring the spread of a weedy coral across the reef, issues surrounding marine debris, and the recovery of a reef following changes in management strategies by the community. They also learn about coral reef ecology, field methods for data collection, and about all the other work going on while ALSO participating community service work (gardening 🌱🌱🌱 this year!)

View on Instagram http://bit.ly/2MmbqzN

Our team in California is gearing up for another visit to our Ulithian collaborators like Chief Ike of Asor in Ulithi and his community. We’re going to listen, and hear more about the scientific studies they would like done on their islands and reefs so they can be better informed when making resource management decisions. We’ll also be wrapping up some studies, continuing our reef monitoring surveys, and starting some new projects too! More info on those to come! 🤙#micronesia#Ulithi #conservation#science

View on Instagram http://bit.ly/2EqrERO

Highly recommended new documentary by Nathan Fitch

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Partnering with Island Conservation and UFCAP on Loosiep Island Restoration

On Ulithi Atoll, Federated States of Micronesia, the local community, the Ulithi Falalop Community Action Program (UFCAP), Island Conservation, and One People One Reef (OPOR) are coming together to remove invasive monitor lizard and rat populations. The Atoll is an important green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) nesting site, as well as home to nesting boobies, frigate birds, terns, a unique species of blind snake and a rich and diverse coral reef fauna.

In the early twentieth century, monitor lizards were introduced to Ulithi as a food source and as a means of controlling invasive rodent populations. Now, both invasive monitor lizards and rats have decimated native wildlife populations and reduced resource availability for the local community. Landowners have attempted to control and remove these populations in the past, but with little success.

In recent years, OPOR has led a revival of community-directed traditional resource management, informed by modern science, on the Atoll. This work has benefited the health of the reefs and the green sea turtle populations, but the remaining threat of invasive monitor lizards and rats undermines these efforts. A study in 2009 found that on Loosiep Island predation by invasive monitor lizards destroyed 82% of marked nests. Island Conservation is now bringing its expertise in island invasive species removal to address this challenge.

Although removal of invasive mammals from islands is a well-established practice and has been successful on more than 1200 islands around the world, the removal of invasive monitor lizards will be a first. UFCAP, Island Conservation, and OPOR are working closely with the community to ensure the success of the project and the continued implementation of biosecurity practices on the islands.

Tern eggs on Yealil Island, Ulithi Atoll PC Emma Lassiter

We expect that the long-term benefits of this work will include not only healthier turtle and bird rookeries, but a healthier reef environment also. Island Conservation will monitor the impact of the work on the terrestrial ecosystem including nesting birds, coconut crabs and native reptiles; a local team led by UFCAP will monitor the nesting sea turtle population; and OPOR will monitor the impacts on the overall marine environment. Another goal for the islanders is to reestablish traditional gardening on Loosiep, which will contribute to their food security and help reduce pressure on fisheries. Island Conservation and OPOR are excited to support UFCAP and to watch the restoration of the island unfold.

This project is supported by the Darwin Initiative and the US Department of the Interior Office of Insular Affairs.



Jan 2019 Ulithi Visit Report

December 2018 Update

December 2018 Update

A huge thank you to everyone who has made our work possible!

As we reflect on the successes of our collaborative work, and its exciting expansion across Yap State,  we would like to thank everyone who has contributed - whether through donations, grant-making, participating in our expeditions or youth projects, or volunteering their time behind the scenes. Your contributions are making a real difference to Outer Islanders, and to the reefs that surround them. One People One Reef is a true collaboration between outer islanders and western scientists and contributors. Hosa hachigchig!

Management plans in place across the Yap Outer Islands!

Our alliance of scientists and communities passed a major milestone this year - 8 atolls/islands across Yap State have revised and strengthened their own management plans, covering over 1,000 linear kilometers, or 66,000km2The plans include a combination of partial closures, species bans, gear bans, rotational closures and seasonal restrictions, and are rooted in traditional management practices. The success of our work on Ulithi Atoll was what prompted the other islands to get involved with the program, and we have now trained over 50 local scientists in on-site monitoring, so we can assess the impact of these management plans over the coming years.

“We need to have a common understanding around management, so that everyone agrees and supports it. Understanding the old ways, and the impacts of the new ways, can help us protect the ocean for our children, and their children.”

Chief Ike, Asor Island, Ulithi Atoll


"Fish we haven't seen for 40 years!"

Our data show an increase in fish biomass on managed reefs - including those that only began management in 2017 - and the community on Falalop, Ulithi has reported seeing fish species they have not seen in over 40 years! Another encouraging anecdote is that community fishing on these reefs recently yielded enough fish for a community event in just a couple of hours, where before the management the reef would often have to be fished for up to 8 hours to provide enough fish. Watch a video clip of one of these community managed reefs teeming with fish!

Read our Biannual Report

Fisheries and seafood consumption data informs management planning

Outer Islanders have collected a huge amount of data on their catch by compiling fisheries databases and keeping household seafood consumption calendars. Our science team has trained over 50 local scientists in collecting data on landed fish, and the Ulithi Atoll database now contains over 90,000 fish. Trends revealed by this data - in preferred fishing methods, which species are targeted, and fish size - are crucial to informing management decisions.

Additionally, to date, over 100 households across seven islands have kept a calendar tracking the source location, type (reef, open water, etc.) and quantity of seafood they consumed over the course of a month. This tool doubles as both an indirect method of fisheries monitoring and a powerful educational aid. 

Ulithi chiefs say no to commercial

sea cucumber fishery

Sea cucumbers have been a recent focus of our reef surveys. Here are our Ulithi Youth Action Project scientists after a day of conducting sea cucumber density surveys on the island of MogMog. “Cukes” are a valuable commodity in some Asian markets, and businessmen have approached the communities for access to the ones found on the reefs of Ulithi. The communities wanted more information about the animals so that they could make an informed decision. How many are there and what species? What is their importance to the reef? The answer to the latter question is that they are hugely important: they “clean” the sediment by feeding on detritus, they turn over the sediment, improving conditions for critters that live in it,  their feces can reduce seawater acidity - combating ocean acidification which is damaging to corals, and they increase biodiversity through hosting many smaller organisms in symbiotic relationships. Armed with this knowledge and data from our surveys, the chiefs have chosen not to sell their cucumbers. If you'd like to join the 2019 Youth Action Project, visit Bluecology's website!

Support our Work

Storytelling Project                 

Reconnecting elders and youth

The Outer Islands have a strong oral storytelling tradition, through which elders pass valuable knowledge on to young people - including knowledge of fisheries and reefs. With young people increasingly leaving their islands to pursue a formal education, connections between elders and youth have been weakening and these stories - and the knowledge they hold - are being lost. This summer our Ulithi Youth Project met with elders from each of the four islands, and asked them to share stories that their grandparents had shared with them. With support from the National Geographic Society, these stories are being transcribed in Ulithian, translated into English, then woven together with relevant science into recorded narratives that can be shared in schools, community meetings and other gatherings, creating new opportunities for youth and elders to reconnect, and for this ancient knowledge to be shared.

Youth Project expands to Woleai Atoll... 

Another highlight of our summer was watching our Ulithi youth galvanize the Woleai community around re-invigorating their people and reefs through learning more about their current and traditional fisheries management practices. From this year's youth project leader, May Roberts: "My proudest, most heart-burtsy-wiggling moment to come from teaching the youth program was learning that the Ulithi participants had essentially run a two week youth program of their own on Woleai. They had taken what they've been learning on Ulithi, and taught Woleai local youth how to conduct surveys, collected samples, and discussed the importance and value of collecting their own fisheries data. They also came away with new connections and friendships, pride, excitement and stoke, as well as a deep appreciation for the cultural aspects that are still observed on the more traditional Woleai but that have been lost on Ulithi.

...with leadership from Ulithian youth

This is Clancy. He wants to be a lawyer that helps Micronesian island communities protect their local fisheries from international fishing boats, and says that the training he’s gotten as a participant in our program is key to understanding the science behind how overfishing can happen.

This is Ginger, a returning participant in the youth project. She’s a real smart, cool gil who is still in high school, but definitely college-bound and now wants to study biology!

Support the Youth Action Project

Community College students contributing to our genetics work

We have developed a class for undergraduate students at Cabrillo Community College and University of California Santa Cruz. This class focused on analyzing the data collected from Ulithi and the outer islands. Students worked on Ulithi fish, corals and sea cucumbers, mostly focusing on: DNA extraction, RAD sequencing, DNA barcoding, and bioinformatics. Learn more about this class here!

Our goals for 2019

In 2019 we will continue to do reef surveys and community outreacand work to scale up this approach. We are also expanding our youth projects.

In addition, we are partnering with Island Conservation to see how invasive rat and monitor lizard removal impacts the reefs and other marine and terrestrial resources. Check out this article on the benefits to coral reefs of invasive rat removal in the Chagos Archipelago.

The Youth Action Project will continue its reef monitoring, community service, and marine debris work, and will be involved in monitoring work to assess the impact of invasive species removal work on sea turtles and coconut crabs. If you'd like to join the 2019 Youth Action Project, visit Bluecology's website!

Thank you once again for your support. We continue to fundraise to support our work. We work closely with Bluecology, and they handle donations to our program. Please consider us in your year-end giving.

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Mailing address: One People One Reef / BLUECOLOGY , 336 Bon Air Center, Suite 155, Greenbrae, CA, 94904, US