Linking Science & Tradition

Outer Island communities are concerned at the loss of traditional resource management practices on their islands that have come with increasing outside influence. Traditional practices on these islands include seasonal and rotating reef closures, size, species and gear restrictions, complex sharing and distribution arrangements, and monitoring and enforcement mechanisms that together create a complete management framework.

With support from National Geographic, we are documenting these practices, which often take the form of taboos and rituals, and drawing connections with scientific management methods. Understanding that these “MPAs” (Marine Protected Areas) are a traditional method, we have found communities embracing them as one of several strategies to enhance the reefs and associated resources. Our 2017 and 2018 Outer Island Science Expeditions allowed us to document practices that have been lost on Ulithi Atoll but are still in use or memory on more remote islands.

  • Our storytelling project is helping preserve traditional stories and the knowledge they encode.

  • This work is creating opportunities for young people to reconnect with their elders.

  • Hearing one of the foundational myths of Ulithian culture, an essential building block for later lessons in resource management practices.

  • Youth project members transcribing the audio recordings – a challenge since Ulithian is not traditionally a written language!

  • Traditional giant clam (Tridacna) “farm” groups the largest clams which are then more likely to reproduce when they spawn

  • Traditional resource sharing and distribution: different lagoon sections are controlled by different islands, and by different clans

  • The introduction of motor boats in place of canoes is an aspect of modernity that has had a major impact on traditional resource management.

  • In spite of the many changes these communities retain many of their traditions.

Oral storytelling is the traditional means for passing down knowledge from generation to generation. As young people now attend Western style schools, often on different islands, they are no longer learning alongside their elders and hearing these stories, and this disconnect is contributing to the breakdown of traditional management. With a National Geographic Society grant we have begun a Storytelling Project, with participants in the Ulithi Youth Action Project listening to, recording, transcribing and translating some of the foundational stories of their culture, upon which their resource management framework is built.

This work has resulted in a collection of seven Ulithian stories with English translations. A new story was written that weaves together elements found within the seven Ulithian stories with contemporary lessons about the value of traditional management rules and coral reef science. These stories are presented in audio (original live recordings and english translations) and a written booklet. Both the audio and written components are include on our Storytelling Project website.