Connecting Conservation and Culture in Oceania

I published this essay on The Saipan Blog in 2018 when President Donald J. Trump was considering downsizing, eliminating, or opening monuments to fishing, mining, and grazing.  It's a bit out of date for the issues we face in 2022, but I touch on issues of colonization and some of the cultural connections between Micronesians and Polynesians, and how geography plays a role.

The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument promotes biological and cultural connectivity between Micronesia and Polynesia

The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is a marine protected area comprised of five large expanses of ocean surrounding seven mostly uninhabited American territories in the Pacific. The combined area, which is nearly twice the size of Texas, spans over 1.3 million sq km (490,000 sq mi) and prohibits all commercial fishing and deep sea mining, while allowing for sustainable recreational and noncommercial fishing.

Wake Atoll, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll, Jarvis Island, Howland Island, and Baker Island are the seven American territories making up the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.  Photo credit: SPREP

President Trump is considering a recommendation from Department of Interior Secretary Zinke to open the monument to commercial fishing and deep sea mining. This proposed action has the potential to harm the fragile resources currently contained within the monument, and is another sad chapter in the American colonization of the Pacific.

If you’re reading this in the mainland, you’re probably surprised that I just went there. If you’re in the Pacific, hopefully you’re nodding your head.

It is worth accepting that this marine protected area exists as a legacy of American colonialism in the Pacific. The seven islands were claimed by the United States during the rush to secure sources of guano for use in fertilizer during the mid-Nineteenth Century. They contain huge ocean areas because President Reagan claimed a 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone. And the waters are protected because President Bush used the Antiquities Act to set them aside for future generations.

From a mainland perspective, these areas seem to be isolated and distant. The tiny islands are hundreds of miles from population centers and barely rise two meters above the ocean’s surface. But from the perspective of my people, the Pacific Ocean isn’t the middle of nowhere. It is the center of everything. These islands and their surrounding waters are literally in the middle of the place we call home. We should not think of the Pacific Remote Islands as the edge of the world, but rather the center. This is true from both a biological and a cultural context.

I am lucky enough to be one of the few indigenous Chamorros to visit Maug in the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument.  This monument plays a central part in defining the Chamorro identity.

Most Americans would accept without question that national parks, places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, protect American history and culture. The rugged individualism of the American character is built on the notion of the frontier and wilderness. Just knowing these places exist plays a part in how Americans define themselves. The Pacific Remote Islands, and other marine monuments like Papahanaumokuakea, Mariana Trench, and Rose Atoll, play a similar role in the Pacific. They are America’s national ocean parks. The idea of opening these marine monuments to commercial fishing is as distasteful to us, as cutting down all the trees in Yosemite is to you.

Let me explain. A common refrain in the islands is that the ocean does not divide us, it connects us. This concept is best represented by the voyaging canoe, called the proa. The proa is much more than a vessel for carrying goods and people across vast stretches of ocean. It is a cultural symbol, by far the most important one in the entire Pacific, and wrapped in several layers of meaning. The proa symbolically represents who we are, how we got here, and where we are going. Consider the deeper meanings inherent in the American flag.  The bald eagle.  A Ford Mustang.  Apple pie.  Disney World.  The proa is all these and more.

Ancient seafarers plied across the sea in proa without the aid of modern navigational instruments. They used physical cues such as the sun, wind, waves, and stars, and living biological resources such as birds, whales, sharks, turtles, and fish to find their way. This is how our ancestors migrated from Southeast Asia across Micronesia and Polynesia to populate these islands more than three thousand years ago.

In a previous blog (Moana: We Are Explorers Reading Every Sign) I described about how voyagers use seabirds as a biocultural resource to find their target islands.  Due to interspecies competition, different species of bird can be found at predictable ranges from shore.  Based on the time of day, species of bird, and the direction of flight, navigators can use this information to find their way home.  Here are the ranges for Johnston Atoll (including tuna ranges).  Image credit: Maxwell & Morgan, 2013.

The seven islands that make up the Pacific Remote Islands are stepping stones that connect Hawaii to Micronesia, and Polynesia beyond. For example, the voyage from Hawaii to neighboring Marshall Islands includes a stop at Johnston Atoll. And this highway is not just for people. As voyagers traverse across the waves, animals and larvae in the water migrate across Necker Ridge, an undersea mountain range which connects Johnston to the Hawaiian Islands. Wake Island is geographically, culturally, and historically linked to the people who live in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Kingman, Palmyra, Jarvis, Howard, and Baker are connected to the Republic of Kiribati. Voyaging and culture link all of these islands. For example, the shark clan from the Gilbert Islands in Kiribati extends to the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia beyond. 

The world of the voyagers of old was very different from the world we live in nowadays. The richness of life was so great that people today can scarcely imagine it. There were more fish, more birds, more whales, more of everything that swims in the ocean, crawls on land, and flies through the sky. When Edmond Fanning “discovered” Palmyra in 1798 he described an abundance of sharks and mullet so thick he could spear them without letting go of his harpoon. It is safe to assume that all of our islands were once like this.

It was in crossing this blue Eden that we evolved into Pacific Islanders. Every Pacific culture is strongly influenced by the natural world. All aspects of our unique ways of life are derived from the ocean and the land including art, song, chants, dance, carvings, religion, myths, stories, architecture, and even economies, world views, and governing systems. We are very much a product of our environment. Our culture is the environment; our environment is our economy.

Our fish used to be bigger.

Sadly, the world that existed in which we became Pacific Islanders is disappearing. Environmental degradation and cultural erosion have occurred in lock step. Colonialism and modernization have changed our islands and our people. Seas teaming with seemingly inexhaustible populations of large fish now have reduced numbers of smaller fish. People have stopped speaking their native languages. Many species of whales, sharks, seabirds, and turtles are on the brink of extinction. Karaoke replaced our local music. Voyaging disappeared in Polynesia.

The ancients understood environmental loss and developed methods of managing their natural resources. The concept of marine protected areas can be found in nearly every island group. Taboo areas, called by different words including tabu, tambu, rahui, bul, mo, meshung, or sil, all represent the idea that damaged or sacred areas in the ocean or on land can be protected from harm permanently or for a period of time. This knowledge and the inherent values that come from it inform our modern decision making.

That's me welcoming the Okeanos Marianas to Guam with an ukulele and a song in 2017

In response to the new threats facing our people, across the Pacific we are seeing a renaissance of cultural and environmental protection, and a realization that they must go hand in hand. As Pacific countries lead global efforts to stop nuclear proliferation, end bottom trawling, protect shark species, reverse the effects of climate change, and create marine protected areas, there is an equal and parallel effort to bring voyaging back to Polynesia, breathe new life into the proliferation of the arts, and promote the practice of speaking in indigenous languages.

The awakening of the Oceanic spirit is changing the way we look at ourselves as Pacific Islanders. We are not just island people; we are seafaring people. The realization that we are descended from explorers and adventurers has given us a new sense of pride, and with that an acceptance of our responsibilities to future generations. We now know that there are no better stewards for the Pacific Ocean than the people who have lived here for thousands of years.

The Pacific Remote Islands play a central role in this rejuvenation. These vast areas are some of the most highly protected, culturally relevant ocean expanses on the planet. They connect the islands of the Pacific and serve as a repository of biological cultural resources. Pacific islanders visiting these islands have not witnessed this level of abundance since colonization. In this regard the proa is like a time machine taking modern voyagers to a world previously only known by the ancients. It is with these large protected areas, and others like them in the Pacific, that island people can fully understand who they are and where they came from.

These islands are very much a part of the American story, but they have been a part of the fabric of Oceania for much longer. This monument is proof that good can come from bad. In protecting the ocean around the Pacific Remote Islands, the United States heals some of the scars caused by colonialism. America claimed these islands as their own in search of resources and empire, and then President Bush gave them back for the benefit of all Pacific people. It would be a terrible mistake for President Trump to take these waters away to benefit industry.

This greeneyes fish lives in the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument.  Opening the Pacific marine monuments would damage habitats hundreds of species depend on.  Photo credit: NOAA

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