Pacific Miracles
Editorial New York Times
April 21, 2007


The trouble with modernity is how efficiently it obliterates the troves of age-old knowledge otherwise known as wisdom. The good news from Palau, a Pacific island nation near the Philippines, is that some wise old ways have reasserted themselves to the great benefit of that tiny republic’s fish and reefs, and the people who depend on them.

Under an ancient system of laws known throughout the South Pacific as tabu or kapu, rulers would forbid fishing in certain areas to let them recover from overuse. Their decisions relied on deep knowledge of seasons and of the habits of fish and plants, and were strictly obeyed by islanders, who understood that depletion of fisheries meant death.

Overfishing by local fishermen, commercial boats and poachers using dynamite has been as much a problem in Palau as elsewhere in the Pacific. Then elders in Ngiwal, a state of Palau, banned fishing on a small section of reef in 1994. It took only a few years for fish to return. Palau now protects 460 square miles of reefs and lagoons, and its reputation for recreational diving is unmatched.

In 2005, Palau’s president, Tommy Remengesau Jr., issued the “Micronesian challenge,” calling on the region to conserve 30 percent of coastal waters and 20 percent of land by 2020. Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu have created hundreds of “no take” zones. Meanwhile, nations in another sea are pursuing their own “Caribbean challenge.”

The trend is encouraging, but there is still a lot of water to cover. It would help if the United States dove in. Hawaii’s reefs and inshore waters are increasingly barren, depleted by pollution, invasive species and fishermen using things like brutally efficient gill nets to catch vast amounts of fish.
Hawaii’s House of Representatives, pushed by the commercial fishing industry, recently passed a deplorable “Right to Fish” bill that is fundamentally at odds with the spirit of Palau. It erects impossible barriers against the creation of no-take zones. It would stamp out the small but growing efforts of local communities and conservation groups to adopt their own sensible fishing restrictions.

Native Hawaiians know all about kapu. What the lobbyists pushing the legislation are banking on is that Hawaiians will forget the usefulness of the old ways and bristle at the supposed paternalism. It would be a perverse victory for “rights” if such an attitude hastened the demise of a shared, precious and vulnerable resource like an island fishery.