One People One Reef

Combining traditional management and modern science to support sustainable fisheries and ecosystem stability

Changing Climate, Changing Reef

Like many Pacific Island Nation communities, Ulithi and the Outer Islands are on the ‘front lines’ of rapid ecological change.  Resource management and protection is critical to their sovereignty and cultural integrity.

Our program has succeeded in implementing community-based marine management by developing comprehensive, documented management plans that include closures, gear restrictions and species restrictions. By Summer 2018, Ulithi, Satawal, Lamotrek, Elato, Ifaluk, and Woleai had developed management plans, detailing management over 1,000 linear kilometers, or 66,000 km2.

Our Approach

We use a knowledge-based approach to facilitate adaptive management planning – flexible plans the people can alter as needed based on knowledge of the system. This approach, similar to those used for many years by ethnobotanists and investigators exploring plant-based medicinals, relies on a two-way exchange of knowledge to develop management plans with the best chance for success. The science team needs information and knowledge from the community about what the main issues are, what approaches have been tried, which work and which do not work, what the major barriers are, and importantly what they see as some of the key ecological changes on their reefs over time. This information is gathered by conducting interviews and community meetings with as many different demographics as possible including leaders, men, women, elderly people, youth, fishers etc.  In exchange, the science team conducts thorough surveys of the reefs to assess the ecological state, and some of the patterns that may shed light on the problems at hand. This knowledge is shared with the community to help them make informed decisions.

Our approach involves a combination of social science and ecological assessments to help communities develop management plans. Our premise is that the plans themselves and the implementation of the plans will come from the community, and our team of scientists will facilitate by providing scientific information and management advice where needed.  We do not suggest committees or committee members, we do not suggest a specific approach (such as an MPA) and we do not set benchmarks for the community to meet. Rather, we discuss these needs with the community leaders, and let them come up with the components for an effective management plan. An important aspect of our approach is to identify traditional methods, and suggest incorporation of those where possible. MPAs in fact are an ancient method of marine resource management, and when presented as a traditional method, we have found communities embracing them as one of several strategies to enhance the reefs and associated resources.

Conservation efforts are sometimes met with skepticism by local communities. Community leaders can be asked to sign documents they don’t fully understand, and to implement conservation plans that will be difficult to uphold, and may cause hardships to the community. Some of these plans are not sensitive to traditional frameworks and local governance structures, and do not fully recognize local knowledge. While many of these global strategies are important and producing good results, there are locally driven approaches, especially in autonomously governed regions, that may be equally or even more effective. Marine conservation and management over hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean relies on the leadership, input and support of the people who live there and who rely on the resources garnered from the reefs. If conservation and management does not make sense to them, or is considered a threat due to the approach, or for some other reason is not embraced, we cannot possibly hope to assist people locally, nor implement ocean conservation globally.

Our approach begins with a meeting with community leaders and members from as many demographics as possible to understand the problems from their perspective. Concurrently, our team conducts an assessment of the reefs to understand the ecological processes and patterns. We develop a set of possible management strategies, and share these, along with our ecological observations, with the community leaders and reef owners, incorporating as much of the existing management and traditional approaches we have learned about. We discuss the implications of the different strategies with them, listening to what has worked and not worked in the past, and how they might solve problems such as what to do if bad weather makes it impossible to fish certain open areas, and safety dictates a need to fish in closer areas, some of which might have been recommended as closed areas. How does the community solve this? Do they temporarily open the closed area? Do they rely on fish from adjacent communities that do not have closed areas? What are the implications of this? Each strategy needs to be considered in light of the environmental and cultural context in which they will be embedded. The goal is to unite the community around management, not to create hardships when times get difficult.

We are a team of community members and scientists working together in an attempt to understand the nature of fish and reef declines (including changes in fishing practices), historical context, and the role that traditions – and the loss of them – may play.

We understand that the critical link between traditional knowledge and environmental sustainability is the key to effective ocean management.

We conduct extensive ecological surveys of the reefs to better understand the effects that fishing and other anthropogenic impacts are having, and we share what we find with the communities.

We discuss specific findings, such as the link between parrotfish declines, night spearfishing, and algal overgrowth on reefs, and how traditional management could address this.

We are encouraging a reconnection to traditional ways without ignoring modern influences like motor boats (rather than abandoning them which is not practical) as a method to address problems in resource abundance and reef health.

We are implementing a unique approach to advance adaptive management and conservation in Micronesian outer islands.

The program is managed and directed by the community.  Community members are trained to continue collecting data, and the science team remains as an advisory body and helps to analyze data and provide guidance.

The problem and the solutions

Coral reefs around the world are currently suffering from multiple stressors. The status of coral reefs and associated fisheries of many remote island communities in the Western Pacific is not well known, yet these communities rely heavily on their reef resources. There is a dearth of research in this region of the world. Coupled with a loss of traditional management and recent changes in fishing practices, this has led to a steady decline in both needed resources and reef health.

Through extensive reef surveys, interviews, and community meetings, our work across Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia has shown that the communities are experiencing a decline in both fish catch and reef health. With food security concerns, biological invasions, ecosystem degradation and climate change associated problems (including erosion and sea level rise), it is a key moment in history to work together to sustain the environment and cultural integrity of the outer islands, which in turn will support global ocean protection.

Some of the issues are:

  1. A reduction in numbers of different kinds of fishing techniques. A diversity of techniques helps maintain a diversity in the fish targeted. Traditionally many islands used over 70 different kinds of fishing, ranging from different gear types, to different depths fished, to specific reefs, and even who does the fishing. Each of these targeted different fish. Now, with the advent of motor boats, spear guns and nets, among others, there is more of an emphasis on these few and generally effective methods, which are driving down certain fish stocks.
  1. A loss of traditional management. Historically, reefs and resources were managed through a complex system of regulations and ceremonial frameworks. Although those management schemes still exist, many are not enforced, and some have been forgotten. Once communities are aware of the effects of their fishing practices, they can reinstate traditional management for which there already exists a cultural context.
  1. The advent of motor boats and storage capacity such as freezers. Motor boats have led to a loss of canoes. With rising gas prices, people cannot travel far to fish. This means nearby fishing areas are becoming overfished. In turn, the freezers allow a way to store fish, and even send some off island to family members on the main island of Yap, or even Guam and Hawaii. This interferes with traditional systems of dividing up the catch.
  1. More concentrated populations, and poor treatment of sewage and organic waste. Although total population has not risen in these islands, there are places where it is more concentrated (such as on the islands that have high schools where youth are sent during the school year). This organic waste flows onto the reefs and encourages the growth of algae, which can damage corals.
  1. Phase shifts. We have recorded a weedy (though likely native) coral that has overgrown many reefs, covering them with one dominant species of coral (a species of Montipora). The local science team are monitoring its growth.
  1. There are other issues such as human health (which is linked to a lack of food from the reefs), and agriculture (declining taro patches and other plant foods), which this project can help address through community meetings and a unified approach to health. Hofag!

Managing and conserving oceans in regions where people rely directly on the reefs for their livelihoods should start with an understanding of the problems, and of the cultural, historical and ecological context of environmental change. It must start with the people themselves.

Communities in the Federated States of Micronesia autonomously govern over one million square miles of ocean in the Western Pacific – extending more than 1700 miles from west to east across one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. The people of the Outer Islands hold the key to successful management and conservation in this vast archipelago.

The History of One People One Reef

In 2004 The Oceanic Society began work with the community of Falalop on Ulithi Atoll.

The Ulithi Sea Turtle Project, founded in 2007, is a community based conservation of Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas), ecological protection and sustainable maintenance, and a small ecotourism project to help provide sustainable benefits to the local community.The unique, community-focused efforts of Dr. Jennifer Cruce inspired the community to reach out and ask for help even though other ‘conservation’ efforts had failed.

At the communities request, our team met in Falalop during the Summer of 2011 to assess the feasibility of expanding conservation efforts to include locally managed marine areas (LMMA’s), among other management approaches for sustainable marine resource extraction.  The community signed a Declaration of Intent to support the development of a locally-managed marine resource management plan.